Chelsea's League Cup run is of little importance
Chelsea v Swansea, 7.45pm
9 January ~ Managers and pundits are often keen to explain victory and defeat in terms of which team "wanted it" more. But in the League Cup it long ago became a question of which team didn't want it less, if you'll pardon the grammar. It's a strange paradox that so many clubs don't take seriously the only competitions they stand a chance of winning – the FA Cup and Europa League suffer from the same disdain from mid-table Premier League teams. By the semi-final stage you would think all those involved would be focused on the possibility of a trophy of any description.
This year that surely goes for three of the four semi-finalists, with Chelsea the only question mark – at least we could be certain Bradford wouldn't put out a second-string XI, if only because they haven't got one.
What would victory mean for Chelsea? Certainly Rafa Benítez will be under no illusions that socking away the most minor cup on offer would have any bearing on his job security. If Roman Abramovich's record of playful assassination were not enough, Benítez might also be aware that the managers of the past four League Cup winners (other than Manchester United) have departed within months of their triumph.
The managerial situation at Stamford Bridge is so febrile it's almost redundant to speculate on how Benítez will play his hand – it seems only a matter of time before he meets the same fate as his predecessors, regardless of success or failure. Under those circumstances you might expect some coaches to go for broke, but Benítez is not a reckless gambler by nature. His talk of Chelsea having "a year of transition" smacks of someone who hopes to be around for longer. His assertion that this year at the club is "different" with "some new players coming in" suggests a certain amount of delusion. When was the last time there were no new players coming in?
Nor will this competition do much for his relationship with the fans, win or lose. There was a time when winning the League Cup was genuinely exciting for Chelsea fans. That was still true in 1998 – their first appearance in the final since 1972, when defeat to Stoke marked the start of a near-fatal decline. The subsequent three times Chelsea have reached the final, whatever their loftier ambitions for the season, the fans have at least had the prospect of facing rivals: Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool (you will remember the 2005 Mateja Kezman/Antonio Núñez duel, surely). Aston Villa and Bradford hardly get the pulses racing in the same way.
The contrast could not be greater with Swansea, for whom any trophy would cement the view that this may be the greatest time to be a City fan. If it really is about who wants it more, there can only be one winner. Mike Ticher