Just when you think you’ve seen it all in football, the sport continues to show that it has the capacity to surprise. In England’s Capital One Cup, the latest reincarnation of the League Cup, there has been no shortage of surprises throughout this season’s competition with a fair amount of controversy thrown in for good measure. After being derided as a “Mickey Mouse” cup over the years, one can argue that, in terms of excitement, the League Cup is actually far more interesting than its big brother, the FA Cup. The 2012-13 League Cup final will see Premier League side Swansea City, set to play in their first major English final (the Swans have ten Welsh Cup triumphs to their name), against fourth-tier side Bradford City who have already disposed of three Premier League clubs so far in this competition.
Swansea City, who hail from Wales’ second city, will become the second Welsh team to reach the League Cup final in twelve months after their arch rivals Cardiff City were beaten by Liverpool in the 2011-12 edition. If Swansea can live up to their billing as heavy favourites then they will create history for Welsh football by becoming the first team from the country to win this particular competition (Cardiff won the FA Cup in 1927). The achievement of reaching the final for Swansea City is remarkable given that the club were only promoted to the Premier League just two years ago and under the management of Danish footballing legend Michael Laudrup have continued and expanded on a fine passing game played under his predecessors Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. The Swans have knocked out of the competition, amongst others, defending cup holders Liverpool and European champions Chelsea. The latter game was laden with controversy after Chelsea’s Eden Hazard kicked out at a ballboy during the semi-final, second leg when trying to retrieve the ball in the last stages of the game, which was goalless on the night but stood 2-0 in Swansea’s favour. The ballboy, revealed as 17 year old Charlie Morgan, fell on top of the ball after a tussle with Hazard who subsequently aimed a kick whilst Morgan was lying on the ground. Hazard saw red, both in terms of anger and in the form of the card shown from the referee’s pocket, but went on to speak to Morgan after the game with both parties apologizing to each other in the aftermath. The incident almost overshadowed the fact that Swansea had successfully defended the 2-0 lead gained from the first leg at Stamford Bridge and will go to Wembley hoping to win their first piece of major silverware since their 2010-11 Championship Play-Off victory which guaranteed their promotion to the Premier League.
Bradford City, a Premier League club as recently as 2001, have suffered a downward turn in fortunes since losing their top flight status. As well as three further relegations, the Valley Parade club were placed into administration in 2002. Nevertheless the spirit of the club has prevailed in tough times and the League Two table currently sees Bradford lying in tenth place, five points behind Northampton Town in the automatic promotion spots and just two points outside the Play-Off places. Their cup form has been nothing short of extraordinary, knocking out three Premier League clubs along the way. Penalties were needed in both the fourth round match against Wigan and the quarter-final tie against Arsenal before Bradford put the challenge of Aston Villa to bed by defeating the Birmingham based side 4-3 on aggregate. Should the Bantams win the trophy against Swansea on February 24th it will go down as one of the most remarkable cup triumphs of all time and would give the West Yorkshire club their first major cup win since they saw off Newcastle United in the 1911 FA Cup final.
Anybody who bemoans the fact that none of the giants of the English game have reached the League Cup final really ought to remind themselves of what makes cup football so exciting in the first place. The chance for David to get one over Goliath is an essential part of knockout football. The fact that two clubs such as Swansea and Bradford are in the final should be celebrated as it gives other clubs the opportunity to dream that it could be them one day, especially in an age where money seems to be deemed more important than the silverware. Try telling that to two clubs whose trophy cabinets aren’t quite as full as they are at Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, to name but three giants of the game.
In this respect the League Cup tends to be more open than its counterpart, the FA Cup. Apart from Portsmouth FC’s triumph in 2008 and Manchester City’s in 2011, the FA Cup has been won by one of just four teams – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – every year since 1996. In the same period the likes of Leicester City (twice), Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough have all lifted the trophy as well as the traditional heavyweights of United, Liverpool and Chelsea (Arsenal, surprisingly, haven’t won the League Cup since 1993). Perhaps the fact that the League Cup concludes early in the new year provides motivation for many teams to win that first piece of silverware in any given season. One thing for certain is that the League Cup deserves far more respect than it currently gets in the English game. Swansea and Bradford will no doubt provide one last highlight this season for a competition which is more interesting than its detractors realize.
There were a multitude of cup finals taking place over Europe this weekend with the biggest of them in Holland. FC Twente Enschede put a marker ahead of their crucial championship showdown in Amsterdam by beating Ajax in extra-time. There were also cup wins for Slovan Bratislava, Llanelli AFC, Linfield FC and UE Sant Julià.
With two crucial games in the space of a week Ajax coach Frank De Boer and his Twente counterpart Michel Preud’homme would be in no doubt as to which of those games they would rather win but Sunday’s KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) final proved to be an exciting hors d’oeuvres ahead of next weekend’s main course. Ajax, record winners of the trophy with 18 wins, got off to a great start going 2-0 up by the 40th minute with Demy de Zeeuw and Lorenzo Ebecilio getting on the score sheet. FC Twente, however, pulled one back on the stroke of half-time through Wout Brama and this handed the initiative back to Preud’homme’s side. The second half saw Twente restore parity in the 56th minute thanks to Theo Janssen and this was how the game remained until the end of the game. Extra-time was needed and an inspired substitution from Twente proved to be the difference between the two teams as Marc Janko, who made his entrance for the second half of added time, scored the winner with just three minutes to play and secured Twente’s third cup success.
WATCH FC TWENTE’S CUP CELEBRATIONS HERE:
In Slovakia there was an exciting final between the country’s two biggest clubs. Slovan Bratislava, defending cup holders going into this season’s competition, met MŠK Žilina who, despite having won four league championships in the last decade, had never won the Slovenský Pohár (Slovak Cup). They may have fancied their chances at half-time going in 2-1 to the good thanks to goals from Štefan Zošák and Ivan Lietava cancelling out Slovan’s opening goal from Martin Guldan. Filip Šebo equalized for Slovan in the second half of regular time and then gave his side the lead with just seven minutes of extra-time remaining. Just as it looked like Slovan could get the champagne out Žilina scored at the death thanks to Patrik Mráz and took the game to the lottery of a penalty shoot out. Slovan Bratislava held their nerve to come through a tense shoot out by five goals to four and helped themselves to a second successive cup win.
There were also cup finals in Wales, Northern Ireland and Andorra. Bangor City, following their Welsh Premier League success eight days earlier (see “Away Days” section), were hoping to secure their first ever league and cup double but their opponents Llanelli AFC had other ideas. Perhaps the emotion of the league success had taken its toll on Bangor as they never looked like claiming the cup once Llanelli took a 2-0 half-time lead through Rhys Griffiths and Craig Moses. Although Bangor City’s Alan Bull pulled one back in the second half the game was over as a contest once Griffiths and Chris Venables added further to Llanelli’s tally to help the club win their first Welsh Cup title. In Northern Ireland record champions Linfield FC, who celebrated winning their 50th league championship in the previous week, extended their success in the nation’s knockout tournament too. Linfield won their 41st Irish Cup with Peter Thompson and Mark McAllister finding the back of the net in a 2-1 win over Crusaders FC. Finally in Andorra UE Sant Julià got some revenge for losing out on the league title to UE Santa Coloma by beating the champions 3-1 in extra-time. Goals from Varela, Salvat and Iguacel helped secure UE Sant Julià their third Copa Constitució.