Georgina Turner
Friday September 24th, 2010

Although a top-flight club has won the League Cup every year since 1991, when Sheffield Wednesday beat Manchester United (and even then it was the first lower league club to spring such a surprise since 1975), Premiership clubs habitually feign indifference to winning it. Even if some of them want to, getting caught celebrating winning it is a no-no; a tacit admission that triumph in English soccer's secondary domestic knockout competition is the height of your ambitions.

Accordingly, the higher up the table you climb, the younger and more inexperienced your League Cup teams get: if you go out, so be it. But this week, this supposedly humdrum little cup has made an unprecedented splash. Too much has been made of the fact that nine Premiership clubs went out -- there were six all-Premier League ties, after all -- but there are some genuine talking points.

Not least of all in Liverpool, where both Premiership representatives lost to lower league sides. In the midst of what is becoming its traditionally poor start to the season, Everton's inability to beat Brentford (League One) was considered merely woeful; Liverpool's defeat to Northampton Town (League Two) has really caused a storm.

"PATHETIC," spat the Liverpool Echo. "Absolutely pathetic. The abomination of a story that is the modern day Liverpool Football Club has reached its most depressing low."

Now, Liverpool's recent cup form is hardly overwhelming: it went out of the FA Cup to Reading (Championship) last season, struggled past Crewe Alexandra (League One) in the League Cup the year before, and was dumped out of the FA Cup by Barnsley (Championship) the season before that. Defeat to Northampton feels a slightly weak harbinger of doom.

But context is king and this season, with the RBS deadline of Oct. 15 approaching and the managing director Christian Purslow repeatedly having to state that the club will not go bust, every incident of this sort prompts the question: Is this the crisis? Is the club in crisis now? What about now?

Manager Roy Hodgson has apologized for his side's defeat, expressing disappointment at his second-string performing so poorly. His shock seemed genuine, but it's also a handy piece of politicking: his predecessor, Rafael Benitez, signed most of that team. The postmatch focus has been on why a club like Liverpool has such a stock of mediocre players, and rehashing old debates about Benitez's (admittedly, endlessly debatable) transfer policy.

Valid questions are being asked about the decline of one of English soccer's oldest institutions, which threatens, with surreal believability, to become inexorable. But aren't these bigger issues than 11 v 11 on a wet Wednesday evening? On the night, it was Hodgson who fielded a patchwork side of out-of-position players without much in reserve, when Joe Cole and Fernando Torres, at least, would have benefited from an outing. It was also Hodgson who changed nothing until the end of normal time, when it had long been evident that Liverpool was struggling.

Perhaps he needed that game to demonstrate -- or even determine -- exactly how bereft of strength in depth Liverpool is. But Hodgson had already marked his card with a pair of defensive substitutions after Liverpool had leveled the score from a two-goal deficit at Old Trafford last week. And wasn't his appointment sold on the notion that he had a knack of getting the best out of average players? It's early days, but he will again be under the microscope when Sunderland visits Anfield on Saturday.

Hodgson isn't walking alone: Chelsea and Manchester City also lost to less-fancied opposition this week having fielded changed sides. The two meet in Saturday's early kickoff for what will be, on paper at least, the toughest game either has faced so far this season.

Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti gave the dramatic 4-3 League Cup defeat to Newcastle all the afterthought a millionaire affords a nickel dropped down a grate, despite the fact that the last home defeat his side had suffered came six months ago, against rather different opposition (Internazionale). "I am not so disappointed," he shrugged.

Of greater concern was the loss of three players to injury within the first hour or so of the match: Gael Kakuta hurt his back after a challenge from Ryan Taylor and then his half-time replacement, Salomon Kalou had to be taken off after 10 minutes having hurt his thigh. To compound it all, Yossi Benayoun limped off with a calf problem minutes later to leave Chelsea with 10 men.

Kakuta and Benayoun would, in all likelihood, only have made the bench against City in any case, and though Kalou's chances of a start were better -- he's already scored four this season -- Ancelotti still has the luxury of significant choice. After all, 10 of those who started against Newcastle hadn't done so against Blackpool.

Things are slightly harder for City manager Roberto Mancini, however -- he fielded an entirely different side against West Bromwich Albion to the one that had beaten Wigan three days earlier, but an XI tuned to beat Chelsea is a different matter entirely. City has just 11 players who are 100 percent fit, and might have to host with just three healthy defenders.

Gareth Barry could be shifted to left-back with Wayne Bridge, Micah Richards, Jerome Boateng, Aleksandar Kolorov and Joleon Lescott all injured and Pablo Zabaleta already deputizing on the right. Mario Balotelli is also out, while doubts linger over Shaun Wright-Phillips and Emmanuel Adebayor.

It hasn't been a great week for Mancini, with reports that he'd accused Adebayor of faking the injury (with predictably explosive results) and the club's former conditioning coach Raymond Verheijen blaming the manager's training schedule for the packed treatment room.

"It will be maybe one more month before you see the best of us," said Mancini. "If we can stay very close with the players we have at the moment, we will be able to move closer when the others come back." The trouble is if Chelsea wins tomorrow, it'll already be 10 points ahead of City.

One of the most interesting League Cup results was Aston Villa's 3-1 victory over Blackburn. Not just because it was Gerard Houllier's first match in charge of Villa, though that may turn out to be significant. And not because it came within days of Blackburn's Sam Allardyce insisting he would "win the double or the league every time" if only he could be given a crack at coaching Real Madrid or Inter, though that's a tickling footnote.

It was because no one who watched the game could describe it to those who didn't without saying: "Emile Heskey came off the bench and changed the game." Getting those words into that sentence, in that order, has been like stacking marbles for as long as anyone can remember. Can his reunion with Houllier have produced results so quickly? Certainly Villa more often played the ball on the ground than in the clouds, and Heskey responded well.

Perhaps there was something in the air: Michael Owen -- remember him? -- also scored. But either's reappearance as a bonafide goal scorer was dwarfed by the impact of Shola Ameobi, also MIA since circa 2002, on Newcastle's fortunes at Stamford Bridge. The striker, for whose form the term "patchy" has generally seemed generous, tested Chelsea all night. All right, it wasn't Ancelotti's first choice defense, but John Terry and Alex are not your standard reserves.

Newcastle manager Chris Hughton doesn't have a reputation as the liveliest of company, but he seems to have got his team, and Ameobi, going. Stoke, who arrive at St James' Park on Sunday, have the personnel to cope with the physique of Andy Carroll, but Ameobi on this form presents a trickier challenge.

A curled goal just after halftime, the crucial winning header in the final few seconds of the game, and a nonstop performance that also created chances for others... beating Chelsea must've felt like a dream, but seeing Ameobi play like that? Fetch the smelling salts.

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