Carling Cup – Proving ground for reserves

The Football League Cup is slowly starting to become a legitimate cup-competition as more English Premier League teams – including Manchester United – are taking it more seriously.

Better known as the Carling Cup, the League Cup is now starting to be on the same level playing field as the prestigious FA Cup, but it might just be more desirable for Sir Alex Ferguson.

Prior to their recent success, this competition was seen as the “Mickey Mouse Cup” by United supporters, because their hated-rival’s, Liverpool, seven victories are the most by any team.

But now, more and more top-level teams, as we saw in the Third Round, are fielding some of their best players to secure a coveted piece of silverware for the season, which, ultimately, makes for better games.

As reported, after the lowly 1-0 defeat at the hands of Leeds United, which was the only time that United has ever been eliminated in their opening match of the FA Cup under Sir Alex, this competition better suits the Reds, because of the timing of it.

More importantly, though, it presents Ferguson the ability to field his fringe or budding reserve team players.

It enables him to see how they can cope in hostile atmospheres without disrupting the team’s league performances, and these players have not let the chances escape them and assured Ferguson’s faith by winning the last two Carling Cup trophies.

Against Scunthorpe United, the supporters saw first-hand that the young United players can cope with adversity, because they faced a very adventurous, dominating team from the second-tier of English football, which probably deserved more from the game.

A feather needs to be put in the Irons’ hat, because there have not been many occasions that a team from a lower division has had more possession and more clear-cut chances than United, but that is what winners go on, losers go home competitions offer up!

Back in the 2005/06 season, United were struggling to keep up with Chelsea in the Premier League as the Blues were on their way to a second consecutive title, but a very formidable run in this very competition kick-started their confidence and the Reds began to challenge in the league again.

Ferguson went into the final with pretty much his first-choice starting XI, which included the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, and United triumphed to a 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Despite trailing by a massive 15 points prior to the final, United ended up closing the gap to eight points by the end of the season, but it was a nil-nil draw against Sunderland that prevented them from pushing Chelsea all the way.

The following three seasons, United went onto reclaim their most-desired trophy as they brought Premier League title back to Old Trafford.

Not every team feels the same way as Sir Alex and United, though.

Chelsea, on the other hand, have devalued the Carling Cup saying that it is not a priority, so Carlo Ancelotti has put more emphasis on winning the illustrious FA Cup.

The Blues have won three of the last four competitions – most likely because of the favorable draws that they have had in the earlier rounds.

The first of their recent FA Cup successes came, controversially, at the expense of United as Chelsea won 1-0 in added extra time.

With exception to the Leeds match last season, United has seen their luck in the FA Cup disintegrate by losing unfairly in each round that they have been knocked out in since capturing their last title in 2004.

In 2005, United made it back to the final, but were unjustly beaten on penalties by Arsenal after completely dominating and pinning the Gunners in their own half.

The following season, they were beaten by Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield, which oddly enough was the home side’s first FA Cup victory over United in 85 years. The match will be forever-remembered for Alan Smith suffering his complete dislocation fracture.

Then in the 2008 final, the Reds had a goal disallowed after the ball clearly crossed the line, but Steven Bennett nor his linesman were in the right position to see it and Chelsea went onto win the match in extra time.

In 2009, Ferguson put his priorities on winning the league and UEFA Champions League and they lost to Everton in a penalty shootout in the semifinals – which was the only time that United did not lose to the eventual winner from 2005 to 2009.

With the exits of Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City, Manchester United has good fortune on their side as they try to make it three consecutive Carling Cup titles in a row.