Name the winner of the League Carling Capital One Cup from three years ago. Easier still, name the two teams that played in the final last year. Fine: just name the current holder of the cup. Even if you spend an unhealthy amount of time watching English soccer (time that you really should be spending with your family), you likely struggled with those questions. Even I couldn’t be bothered to look up the answers, and I’m being paid to write about them. Why? Because nobody gives a shit about the League Cup.
The giveaway is in the name. Any competition that changes its name every few years to reflect its main sponsor is not meant to be taken seriously. Especially when the two most recent sponsors are a beer that you only drink under desperate circumstances (crippling alcoholism, for instance), and a credit card that you are eligible for if you have a “less than ideal” credit history. The American Express Cup would still be an embarrassing thing to be involved in, but at least it would carry the pretense of higher aspirations.
On Sunday, Chelsea and Tottenham face off in what should be a highly-anticipated match. It’s a cup final, at Wembley, between two London clubs that are both near the top of the Premier League. A local derby played on the highest stage, with the first silverware of the season at stake. But let’s not kid ourselves. Not even the clubs contesting the final really care that much about the competition.
In the build-up to Sunday’s game, José Mourinho will say the usual trite nonsense about this final being important to set the tone for the rest of the season, and he will talk about how it has special meaning for him as the first trophy he ever won in England. Mauricio Pochettino will make similar remarks, and may even call it the biggest game of Spurs’ season. Both will be lying. Practically all of Chelsea’s team has lifted trophies before, so they don’t need a victory in the League Cup to get a taste for success. Pochettino and Spurs would benefit more from actually winning something, but that doesn’t mean that their priorities don’t lie elsewhere.
If you were to offer Spurs the option of being thoroughly embarrassed by Chelsea in the final but also finish fourth in the league, or win the Cup but finish seventh in the league, they would take the former outcome every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Such is the reality of modern soccer, and the relative glory and riches involved with just participating in the Champions League, as opposed to winning a second-tier domestic cup competition. After all, Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers have won the League Cup since the turn of the millennium, and both those clubs are currently lingering in the black hole of sadness that is the middle of the Championship.
Technically, winning the Crest Whitestrips™ Cup (just getting ready for 2016) offers a route into Europe, as the winners are awarded a spot in the Europa League if they have not otherwise qualified for the Champions League. Which makes that particular prize useless to Chelsea, and mostly underwhelming to Tottenham. The prize money of £100,000, meanwhile, is about what Spurs’ vice-captain Emmanuel Adebayor will have made this week while watching from his couch at home. A lot of money to you or me, but not nearly enough to make Premier League clubs get out of bed.
If this game was being played at the business end of the season, let’s say sandwiched between crucial league matches for Spurs against top four rivals Manchester City and Southampton, there is no question that Pochettino would field a weakened line-up. Not just “Europa League qualifying rounds” weakened lineup, either. We’re talking “Ledley King out of retirement” weakened lineup. And for Chelsea, if this final fell between two important league matches later in the season? Well, Mourinho would probably start eight of the same players in all three games. But his post-match rants about conspiracies after the League Cup final would be halfhearted, and he probably wouldn’t even get worked up enough to poke anyone in the eye.
All that said, it is still a final, and Chelsea and Spurs have to contest it whether they like it or not. Maybe both teams treat it like a glorified mid-season friendly and phone it in, but let’s hope not. As far as Champions League qualification goes, Tottenham has an unfortunate history of being Tottenham, so it could use the insurance policy of a guaranteed Europa League place. For Chelsea, not even Mourinho is cynical enough to show disdain for a competition after already making it to the final. We all know that the Capital One Cup doesn’t matter, but we’re already here, so we might as well pretend to care.