We’re fast approaching the first Wembley showpiece of the year in English football, with the Carabao Cup final set to take place on February 24.
This week will see two teams confirm their place at Wembley next month, although it’s fair to surmise the defending champions Manchester City have already achieved this aim following a devastating 9-0 win over Burton Albion in the first leg of their semi-final.
Still, Pep Guardiola’s men will have to dot the i’s and cross the t’s at the Pirelli Stadium on Wednesday, whilst Spurs will head to Stamford Bridge to defend a slender 1-0 lead 24-hours later.
We’ll review these ties below while asking which sides will be making their merry way to Wembley next month.
Can Spurs break their trophy duck?
You’ll forgive us for focusing primarily on the second leg clash between Chelsea and Spurs, which is evenly poised following a tight and keenly-contested game at Wembley.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men prevailed 1-0 thanks to Harry Kane’s first-half penalty, though Chelsea dominated the second period and left Spurs hanging on at times. The Blues even hit the woodwork twice in the first-half, with N’Golo Kante’s near-post flick and Callum Hudson-Odi’s deflected cross both beating stopper Paulo Gazzaniga.
Defender Andreas Christensen also missed a glaring opportunity from six yards after the break and while Kane drew a smart save from Arrizabalaga late on, there was little doubt which team was in the ascendancy come the final whistle.
Given this and the fact that Chelsea have home advantage in the second leg, we may be tempted to make Maurizio Sarri’s men favourites for the tie.
However, the Blues are gripped in a mini-crisis at present, with the Italian recently being reduced to holding peace talks with his players after questioning their motivation during the recent 2-0 defeat to Arsenal at The Emirates.
This was the culmination of a difficult run for the Blues, who have also struggled to a 0-0 home draw against Southampton prior to the first leg defeat at Wembley. These results, coupled with concerns about Sarri’s style of play and his insistence on playing both Eden Hazard and Kante out of position, has left them vulnerable at a challenging stage of the season.
The question that remains, is: are Spurs are well-placed to capitalise? After all, they struggled to impose themselves during the first leg, while recent home defeats to Wolves and Manchester United in the Premier League have also undermined their form of late.
With talisman Kane also nursing an ankle injury and the talented forward Son Heung-min away representing South Korea in the Asian Games, Spurs’ lack of squad depth and forward options is being exposed as they look to reach their first domestic cup final since 2015.
This leads us onto another issue, as for all of Spurs’ undoubted quality and the brilliance of Pochettino, the club have yet to translate their promise into tangible success. These failings have been embodied by consecutive FA Cup semi-final defeats in 2017 and 2018, along with a failure to sustain burgeoning title challenges in 2016 and 2017.
Pochettino has also publicly questioned the merit of winning domestic cup competitions, suggesting that his priorities lie with lifting the Champions League or the EPL title. While some say that this is indicative of the club’s burning ambition, it may also betray a fragile mentality that struggles to thrive on the biggest of stages.
Stamford Bridge will provide another of these stages on Thursday, and with both teams struggling it may well come down to factors such as desire, focus and an underlying will to win.
Experience may also play a part, and this could well help Chelsea and their team of seasoned winners to edge Spurs in the second leg and book a Wembley place.
Is there any chance that City could lose?
As for the second semi-final, this should be little more than a precession for Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering team.
After all, the 9-0 victory in the first leg was a record for the League Cup semi-final, and one that highlighted the incredible gulf that exists between the two sides.
We’d expect City to field a slightly weakened side in the second leg, although Guardiola’s plans may be hampered by the fact that his U-21 side is scheduled to play at Sunderland in the Checkatrade Trophy just 24 hours previously.
So while Pep may select a one or more of Phil Foden, Arijanet Muric, Eric Garcia and Philippe Sandler to start at the Pirelli Stadium, he’ll have to field far more first-team regulars than he would like.
This is bad news for Burton, who despite harbouring no hope of reaching Wembley would at least have been optimistic about finishing their Carabao Cup run with a victory.
There appears to be little chance of this now, with City likely to seal the deal on Wednesday with a comfortable victory.