Manchester City’s long-term vision for Europe may be under threat and Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League all but unassailable, yet Pep Guardiola could still write himself into the history books on Sunday if he becomes the first manager since Bob Paisley to win three successive League Cups.
If that sounds more like a footnote to history than anything of greater significance it is because the early season knockout competition has diminished in importance in the intervening years, while City themselves are clearly set up for grander ambitions.
Liverpool actually won four League cups in a row between 1981 and 1984 (Joe Fagan claimed the last) ending up with the Milk Cup when the competition gained a sponsorship for the first time in 1981-82. Given that City are one of the few clubs who take the League Cup seriously each year, putting out competitive sides and setting out to win, it is possible Liverpool’s record could be matched or even overtaken at some point, as long as what is now the Carabao Cup keeps going long enough to allow that to happen.
There can be little doubt the League Cup is now regarded as a lesser prize than the one collected so regularly by Paisley’s team, which is one reason why City’s consistency over the past couple of years has not gained greater recognition. The competition probably reached the height of its importance and popularity in the late 80s, standing in for European competition at a time when English teams were banned post-Heysel, but in the years of Liverpool’s supremacy it still had a lot going for it. It was a trip to Wembley when trips to Wembley were still rare. It featured all Football League members willingly, without the opt-outs and two-legged finals at ordinary grounds that characterised its formative years.
Only one team could win the FA Cup, and in the 80s every team absolutely wanted to win the FA Cup, but the League Cup was the next best thing at a time when so few teams had a realistic chance of winning anything else.
The expansion of the Champions League in the early 90s would eventually lead to the devaluation of the FA Cup in the eyes of leading teams, principally because the two events reached their conclusions at around the same time and the European contest was far more lucrative and glamorous. That had a knock-on effect on the League Cup, which still gets blamed for fixture congestion even though it is always out of the way by this stage of the season.
None of the reasons why fixture overload at the turn of the year was so acute this term had much to do with the League Cup, apart from Liverpool’s quarter-final with Aston Villa unhelpfully clashing with the Club World Cup in Qatar, yet the less-established element of the domestic treble City won last year was inevitably the one most people thought should be jettisoned in order to streamline the season. It is true that few other leagues around Europe have two knockout cup competitions built into their domestic schedule, though it is also probable that scrapping the League Cup would make little difference to spreading out fixtures without earlier rounds of the FA Cup being brought forward to take its place in the calendar.
One way or another, it seems unlikely the League Cup will stagger along in its present format for much longer. If something has to give on the domestic front it will not be the FA Cup or the league championship. City winning something that many people would like to see the back of is not going to create headlines around the world, at least not headlines comparable to the ones that accompanied their recent slap-down by Uefa over financial fair play. Everyone was interested in that story, because everyone knows that Europe is a City priority. Guardiola keeps insisting otherwise, but that can sound as if he is protesting too much given he was head-hunted specifically for his Champions League track record and European expertise.
City have meticulously put together a team capable, or theoretically capable, of winning the Champions League. As that now involves surviving more than a dozen games against the top sides in Europe, and bulking out the depth and quality of the squad so that league form and qualification for next season’s tournament do not suffer, it should not surprise anyone that a well-equipped team with such powerful financial backing should do well in a competition that not everyone takes seriously.
Liverpool were an even more dominant force in the early 80s – they won two of their European Cups in 1981 and 1984 – yet in the second of those seasons, quite incredibly, they used only 15 players over the course of a 42-game title-winning campaign, and five of them played in every match. Football just isn’t like that any more, which is why people will not be getting carried away if City win the first part of the treble Liverpool won in 1984.
For some reason Paisley’s sides never distinguished themselves in the FA Cup, whereas City will advance to the last eight if they prevail at Sheffield Wednesday on Wednesday. With the league out of reach, a cup treble could still be within City’s grasp, and if they can manage that, especially the elusive European element, it would represent real history – and an ongoing problem for Uefa – rather than any footnote.