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EFL Cup

Why the League Cup still means something: The case of Stoke City

Martyn Cooke

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There is a common perception within English football that the League Cup, now rebranded as the Carabao Cup, has very little importance or significance in the modern game.

Indeed, there is a strong case to argue that point. The early rounds of the competition are characterised by squad rotation, mass changes to the starting eleven and the blooding of untested young players or the temporary return of ageing stalwarts.

Some clubs appear to treat the cup as an irritation, an unwanted distraction that can disrupt early season momentum, rather than to accept it for what it really is – a genuine opportunity to challenge for a major trophy.

Of course, not every club will have a realistic opportunity to secure a place in the League Cup final at Wembley.

For those that occupy the lower divisions there is minimal hope of winning the competition outright, but the recent exploits of Bradford City, who reached the semi-finals in 2013, has demonstrated that even unfancied sides can benefit from the glory and financial windfall of a good cup run.

For those Premier League clubs that perceive the competition to lack the glamour or appeal of weekly top flight football I have a message – you are wrong.

A genuine opportunity for glory

As a Stoke City supporter I have had very little to celebrate over the course of my lifetime, as I assume the followers of many other provincial clubs around the country can relate to.

Whilst The Potters may be entering their tenth successive season of top flight football the reality is that the club has won just one major trophy in over 150 years of history, the League Cup in 1972, and have appeared in just one, unsuccessful, FA Cup final.

If you were to summarise the entire history of the club you would probably conclude that, for the vast majority of our existence, we have not been very good.

Stoke’s continued participation in the Premier League has transformed the perception and atmosphere around the club. We are no longer a provincial team trying to survive year-to-year, but a global brand (stop sniggering at the back!) that is lavishing in the global spotlight and financial rewards that the top flight of English football facilitates.

However, there is a sense that Stoke have reached something of a glass ceiling. This season the club will finish somewhere in mid-table, barring some sort of catastrophe or heroic run of form, and whilst the team has not genuinely been embroiled in a relegation battle for over half-a-decade there appears to be little hope of challenging the so-called ‘big clubs’ for European football.

Substantial investment in the playing squad, potentially equalling hundreds of millions of pounds, would be required to break into the top six and even then, as Everton have found out so far this season, money is no guarantee of success.

They call it mid-table mediocrity – which is why the defeat on Tuesday evening against Bristol City in the Carabao Cup has left many Stoke supporters, myself included, angry and frustrated.

The Potters conspired to concede two goals in ten second half minutes against a Chempionship side that had made nine changes to the starting eleven from their contest at the weekend.

Mark Hughes also rang the changes but the Stoke team consisted of nine full internationals which included the likes of Darren Fletcher, Peter Crouch, Kurt Zouma and Eric Choupo-Moting. There was certainly no lack of quality on show and yet the fact that Lee Grant was Stoke’s outstanding performer in the 2-0 defeat tells its own story.

For Stoke City supporters the League Cup offers a genuine opportunity for the team to challenge for a major honour. Participation in the Premier League is great but, barring a few ups and downs, the season will end with the club firmly entrenched in a mid-table position.

Fans are desperate for a good run in a domestic cup, not only for glory or to repeat the heroics of 1972, but to break up the monotony of the campaign.

The defeat at Ashton Gate has left supporters regretting a missed opportunity to take a small step towards an appearance in a Wembley final and they will have to wait until the FA Cup kicks in for their side to right the wrongs of Tuesday night.

Because, in contrast to what some managers and clubs appear to perceive, the League Cup still means something to supporters of clubs like Stoke City. Maybe it is time that Mark Hughes, his players and those at other clubs across the country begin to recognise the importance of cup glory.

As my old man commented following Stoke’s defeat against Bristol City “I would like to see us win a trophy in my lifetime” – I am sure that he was not the only supporter shuffling out of the away end at Ashton Gate who holds onto that hope.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Bristol City

How Famara Diédhiou and Matt Taylor’s secured a cupset for Bristol City against Stoke

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Championship outfit Bristol City took another notable scalp in their Carabao Cup campaign this season, goals from strike duo Famara Diédhiou and Matt Taylor sealing a 2-0 third-round victory over a Stoke side that looked strong on paper at Ashton Gate, despite Robins boss Lee Johnson making nine changes to the starting line-up from the side that saw off Derby County in the league over the weekend.

Goalscorer Diédhiou was one of the players to whom Johnson handed a recall, alongside fellow goalscorer and strike partner Matt Taylor, and the duo repaid their manager’s faith by leading the line in fine fashion, capping their respective performances with a goal and assist a piece, and proving a menace to Mark Hughes’ defence throughout the night.

In fact, the former Angers man almost brought the majority of the 13,826 crowd inside Ashton Gate to their feet as early as the second minute, when he pounced on Kevin Wimmer’s short back-pass but saw his right-footed effort thwarted by goalkeeper Lee Grant who’d rushed from his line to intervene.

That set the tone for a strong start from the hosts against their top-flight opponents, with a host of chances falling the way of the Robins before Stoke began to creep into the contest as the half wore on.  Amongst these Taylor almost bagged himself a first-half assist after his pass played in Niclas Eliasson down the right, who cut inside and saw his effort go inches wide of the upright.

After Stoke’s Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting saw his angled effort saved by City goalkeeper Luke Steele, the home side looked to hit the Potters on the counter-attack, Diédhiou this time almost providing the killer pass with a beautifully weighted pass into strike partner Taylor, who could only divert his effort into the side netting when put under pressure by Glen Johnson.

Stoke would miss the last big chance before the interval, however, Kurt Zouma crashing a header off the bar from a Charlie Adam corner, Bristol City defender Aden Flint being forced to clear off the line twice in the subsequent scramble. And the Premier League side would be made to rue their wastefulness just five minutes after half-time, and it was Diédhiou again at the heart of their torment.

It all started from Stoke City’s own goal-kick. Bristol City’s Aden Flint was allowed to leap unchallenged and head the ball clear in the centre of his own half, inadvertently sending Matt Taylor racing clear of Bruno Martins Indi and Josh Tymon.

Diédhiou made a clever run inside Kurt Zouma to support his fellow forward, and when Taylor’s right-footed effort across goal came back off the underside of Lee Grant’s right-hand post, Diédhiou was well placed to bundle home with a headed effort from close range to put the Robins a goal to the good and steamrolling towards a cup upset.

And the duo weren’t done there, as they would combine once more for the killer goal just ten minutes later. Steele’s long punt up-field looked to be dropping in the centre of the Stoke half, with Kurt Zouma in position to intervene.

Diédhiou, however, was in pursuit, and timed his jump perfectly to beat Zouma to the ball and play a perfectly weighted headed flick on through to Taylor.

The former Bristol Rovers man did the rest, racing clear of the retreating Wimmer and firing a left-footed shot low across Lee Grant and into the bottom right corner to hand the Robins a two-goal cushion. A goal and an assist a piece now for both strikers.

Diédhiou almost helped the hosts do more damage later in the second half, as his low cross along the six-yard box was just a little too quick for the onrushing Aden Flint to direct towards goal.

Diédhiou was then withdrawn for leading scorer Bobby Reid, before Taylor was given a standing ovation with two minutes remaining as Korey Smith was thrown into the fray to see out the closing stages of the game.

Overall, a fine performance from both attacking players and a strong message about the strength in depth that this Bristol City team has; a welcome conundrum for manager Lee Johnson which will surely provide food for thought ahead of the weekend’s trip to Norwich.

With two Premier League teams now put to the sword this season, Bristol City will surely be a team to look out for in the Carabao Cup’s Fourth Round (Round of 16) draw, to be held following the conclusion of Manchester United’s Third Round match-up with Burton on Wednesday 20th September.

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Burnley

How Pablo Hernandez and Hadi Sacko starred in Leeds United’s cup win at Burnley

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New Leeds boss Thomas Christiansen has seen his side make an impressive start to their Championship campaign this season.

The Whites are currently top of the table and have made similar headway in the Carabao Cup too, making it into the hat for the Fourth Round draw of the competition after seeing off Burnley 5-3 on penalties following a dramatic 2-2 draw at Turf Moor.

Hadi Sacko and Pablo Hernandez were the names on United’s scoresheet, who saw their goals cancelled out by former Leeds man Chris Wood, and a stunning free-kick from Irish international Robbie Brady.

Sacko, introduced in the 60th minute in place of Manchester United loanee Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, and Hernandez- introduced in the 79th minute in place of Pawel Cibicki- was impressive performers on the night for the Whites as they sought to turn the screw late on against their Premier League opponents.

Until then it had been all Burnley pressure that the visitors were forced to withstand, and it didn’t change immediately after the Frenchman’s introduction, with Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Ashley Barnes, and Phil Bardsley all continuing to waste chances for the Clarets.

Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan was forced to make a save when Gudmundsson teed-up for Ashley Westwood to hit a curling strike from the edge of the box, and two minutes later the Whites, having stood firm amidst relentless pressure, found themselves in front.

Pablo Hernandez, now introduced, who thanks to a fortunate ricochet down the Burnley right found himself in possession, rode a challenge with his first touch of the ball and found himself in a pocket of space in the centre of his half towards the centre-circle. Looking up at the right flank, he played a superb pass into Sacko, who’d made an excellent run behind Burnley’s former Leeds defender Charlie Taylor.

With his first notable contribution, Sacko latched onto the ball with an inch-perfect first touch, and before the recovering James Tarkowski could intervene, Sacko powered a right-footed effort through the legs of goalkeeper Nick Pope to hand Leeds an unlikely lead and send the travelling fans behind the goal into raptures with ten minutes of the match remaining.

Hernandez almost doubled Leeds’ advantage five minutes later, but his arrowed effort flew just over Pope’s crossbar, before Burnley saw another chance go begging with one minute of normal time remaining, Lonergan tipping another Gudmundsson effort out for a corner.

Burnley found a route back into the game late on from the resulting spot-kick, Gaetano Berardi was adjudged to have fouled Kevin Long as the ball entered the box, and former Leeds forward Chris Wood made no mistake from the spot to level affairs against his old club.

But there was still time for more late drama, Hernandez was played in down the left by Stuart Dallas, and his cross was floated in towards Kemar Roofe. The referee adjudged that Roofe was being held by Burnley skipper James Tarkowski and pointed to the spot.

Hernandez took responsibility for the spot-kick, and calmly sent Pope the wrong way and stroked the ball home into the bottom right corner, capping off his cameo with a goal and handing Leeds the advantage with four minutes of stoppage time gone.

But Leeds were to be denied victory in normal time. Burnley won a free-kick in a dangerous position roughly 25 yards from goal in the sixth minute of added time, and Robbie Brady stepped up to curl the ball left-footed into the top left corner of the goal beyond Lonergan to send the game into extra-time.

As both sides tired, clear-cut chances were few and far between in the extra half an hour, but Hernandez would miss a huge opportunity in the final minute of extra-time, firing over from outside the box in what proved to be Leeds’ last chance.

The Spaniard made no mistake in the resulting penalty shootout, however.

Stepping up second for Leeds after Pierre-Miche Lasogga had converted for the Whites, and Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes made no mistake for Burnley in the new ABBA penalty shootout format, Hernandez stroked the ball into the bottom right corner right-footed, just as he had with his previous penalty in normal time to level the shootout at 2-2.

James Tarkowski would see his crucial fourth penalty for Burnley beaten away in the bottom right corner by Lonergan, before Ezgjan Alioski and Stuart Dallas converted to hand Leeds a 5-3 penalty shootout victory and put themselves in the hat for Round Four.

Hernandez has been a regular in the Championship for Leeds thus far this season, with Sacko finding himself in and out of the side, and their impressive cameo performances at Turf Moor, along with that of the starting eleven which Christiansen had shaken up from Leeds’ defeat at Millwall over the weekend, indicates that the Whites are a side with a deal of strength in depth.

Sitting at the summit of the Championship and looking like a promotion contender early in the season, and still going strong in the Carabao Cup having now taken a Premier League scalp, they could be one of the sides to watch from the second-tier who will feature in the Round of 16.

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Bolton Wanderers

Analysing Diafra Sakho’s goalscoring return for West Ham against Bolton

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Diafra Sakho

Slaven Bilic’s West Ham United barely broke a sweat in their Carabao Cup Third Round tie, easing into the hat for the Fourth Round with a 3-0 over early Championship strugglers Bolton Wanderers at London Stadium.

Angelo Ogbonna, Diafra Sakho, and Arthur Masuaku were all on the scoresheet for the Hammers, Senegalese international Sakho repaying manager and fans with an impressive performance on his recall to the side despite declaring his intentions to leave the club over the summer, featuring as a lone striker flanked by wingers Andre Ayew and the impressive Marko Arnautovic.

Sakho and Arnautovic linked well for the majority of the night, and their chemistry showed its first glimpse as early as the fourth minute, Sakho winning a free-kick which Arnautovic duly stood over out on the right wing.

The Austrian played a perfect ball into the box, and with Sakho amongst others making nuisance of himself in the box, it allowed Angelo Ogbonna the time and space to surge into the area unopposed for a free header which he powered into the goal to give the hosts an early lead.

Sakho then almost turned provider for Arnautovic later in the first-half, latching onto Mark Noble’s clipped ball forward and holding up the ball expertly against Bolton defender Mark Beevers, before laying the ball on for Arnautovic to strike, who saw his initial effort blocked before his follow up effort was parried away by goalkeeper Mark Howard.

Sakho’s movement and hold-up play was beginning to cause Bolton all sorts of problems, and he showed off a glimpse of his ability to run the channels also. Played in down the left, he raced clear of defender Andrew Taylor and cut inside onto the edge of the penalty box before checking back onto his right foot and playing in the onrushing Andre Ayew, who could only drag his first-time effort wide of the right post.

With unwanted profligacy in front of goal seeming to set in, and unwilling to allow that to hand the visitors a route back into the contest, Sakho himself showed his teammates the route to goal with just over half an hour on the clock.

Noble, another impressive performer on the night, played a well weighted clipped ball through to Arnautovic who’d found a pocket of space down the left with acres of space to gallop forward.

Venturing inside, he laid the ball left-footed off for Sakho inside the penalty area, who had the simple task of finishing beyond Howard to put the hosts two goals ahead before the break. His celebration was muted, as he wandered over the byline to thank his teammate.

Sakho was notably quieter after the break, which mirrored West Ham’s team performance in the second-half, with chances fewer and further between until the forward made way for Javier Hernandez on 71 minutes.

The Hammers went on to finish the job in stoppage time, Arthur Masuaku being allowed the time and space on the left of the penalty area to pick his spot and send a left-footed pile-driver into the top right corner and complete Bolton’s misery in East London.

Although Sakho is almost certain to depart the club at the end of the season, if not in January, his hardworking team performance on Tuesday will remind Slaven Bilic that the want-away forward still has something to offer his side, for unlike popular belief, it appears the forward is not willing to allow his desire to leave the club impede his performances.

His performance also says a great deal about the strength in depth of this West Ham side when the players are performing, and the Hammers could prove to be a dark horse in this competition in the hat for the next round.

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