“I am taking the competition seriously” was the most surprising line in Arsene Wenger’s post-match press conference after his side’s 4-0 destruction of Newcastle United’s second string.
This was an intriguing admission from a man who once joked that there would be no open-top bus tour through the streets of Islington if Arsenal won the Carling Cup.
Some suggest his attitude remains the same about the cup dubbed the ‘mickey-mouse trophy’. There was no Arsenal press conference ahead of the Newcastle game ‘because it’s the Carling Cup’ according to Wenger but after looking at the strength of his side against Newcaslte, it is apparent that his view has changed. Or, his hand forced.
The Carling Cup has been the stepping stone for clubs who go onto further success and it seems Wenger has realised this. When Liverpool won their cup treble in 2001, it was the League cup that started it all off.
When Manchester United endured a difficult transitional period after the departures of lynchpins Roy Keane and David Beckham, it was the Carling Cup in 2006 that gave their new breed the taste for silverware and their old-guard a reminder of what it was like to win trophies. Ferguson’s men went from strength to strength, reclaiming the Premier League trophy in 2007 and going on to win the Champions League the following season.
When Jose Mourinho took over Chelsea in 2004, he put an awful lot of emphasis on the Carling Cup which was his first trophy in England and was the much-needed confidence boost that led Chelsea to their first league triumph in 50 years.
The 50-year-old, triple-handled trophy was also the start of the recent success of Tottenham Hotspur, who have gone on to finish in the top four in the Premier League for the first time. This, after reaching consecutive Carling Cup finals in 2008 (beating Chelsea) and 2009 (losing to Manchester United) is further testament to the competition.
It could also be suggested that the League Cup is a more attractive competition than the FA Cup nowadays with the final held in February and the opportunity to blood youngsters in the earlier rounds. So maybe this is why Monsieur Wenger has changed his tune.
Just as recent as last season, Wenger said, after a 3-0 defeat in the third round to Manchester City: “I know we have not won a trophy since 2005 but I do not consider that if you win the Carling Cup you will be going on a trophy parade.”
“It is a competition for our younger players. If I don’t play them here where would I play them?
“We played in the quarter-final of the Champions League last season against top teams. Playing in those matches is 10 times harder than playing in the Carling Cup.”
So what has changed, Arsene?
The Frenchman fielded a strong side last night featuring eight full internationals which was in stark contrast to his side that lost away to Burnley in the quarter-finals two seasons ago which included just three internationals.
Well, the answer is clear. The pressure of not winning silverware is getting to him.
Speaking yesterday, he said:
“The Carling Cup is a trophy that we want to win. There are a few big teams not in it anymore, so for sure it is a cup we want to win.
“It is very important because it could be the first step on the start of something — the Carling Cup is a trophy and you qualify for the Europa League, so we need to try to win it.
“There is added pressure because we have won nothing in five years.”
Gael Clichy is the only member of the current Gunners set-up who has been part of a championship-winning season, having played a dozen games in the 2004 success so it’s fair to say his team are not used to winning things.
Apart from Cesc Fabregas’ success with his national team, winning the World Cup and European Championships, the rest of the Arsenal squad have yet to get their hands on any silverware. And with Cesc tipped to join boyhood club Barcelona in the near future, Wenger has his sights on the Catalan lifting at least one trophy before his return home.
That trophy, idealistically, would be the Premier League title or the Champions League that has eluded Wenger, but the Carling Cup is more realistic.
This sudden change of heart by Wenger could be the crucial turning point for his young side who could be on the verge of greatness.
If this team like the others mentioned above get that all-important first taste of lifting trophies, it could mark the second coming of Arsenal as a real force.
Below is a list of the sides put out by Wenger in the Carling Cup since 2003-04 which highlight just how much Wenger’s view has changed.
2010-11: Arsenal beat Newcastle United 4-0 in fourth round
Line-up: Szczesny, Eboue, Djourou, Koscielny, Gibbs (Sagna), Walcott, Eastmond, Denilson, Vela (Fabregas), Rosicky, Bendtner (Emmanuel-Thomas)
2009-10: Arsenal lose 3-0 to Manchester City in quarter-finals
Line-up: Fabianski, Silvestre, Eboue, Traore, Eastmond, Rosicky, Ramsey, Song Billong, Wilshere, Merida, Vela
2008-09: Arsenal lose 2-0 to Burnley in quarter-finals
Line-up: Fabianski, Hoyte, Silvestre, Ramsey, Gibbs, Rodgers (Lansbury 46), Randall (Bischoff 72), Merida, Wilshere (Simpson 63), Bendtner, Vela
2007-08: Arsenal draw semi-final first-leg 1-1 with Tottenham, lose second-leg 5-1 (6-2 on agg)
Line-up 1st leg: Fabianski, Justin Hoyte, Djourou (Sagna 46), Senderos, Traore, Walcott (Randall 90), Denilson, Silva, Diaby, Van Persie (Eduardo 46), Bendtner.
Line-up 2nd leg: Fabianski, Sagna, Justin Hoyte, Gallas, Traore (Eduardo 65), Hleb, Denilson (Fabregas 18), Silva, Diaby, Walcott (Adebayor 65), Bendtner
2006-07: Arsenal lose 2-1 to Chelsea in final
Line-up: Almunia, Hoyte, Toure, Senderos, Traore (Eboue 66), Walcott, Fabregas, Denilson, Diaby (Hleb 68), Aliadiere (Adebayor 80), Julio Baptista
2005-06: Arsenal lose 1-0 to Wigan in semi-final
Line-up: Almunia, Gilbert (Larsson 75), Senderos, Djourou, Cygan, Ljungberg, Flamini, Silva, Hleb, Owusu-Abeyie (Lupoli 72), Reyes (Fabregas 72).
2004-05: Arsenal lose 1-0 to Manchester United in quarter-fnial
Line-up: Almunia, Hoyte, Senderos, Djourou, Clichy (Karbassiyoon 81), Pennant, Flamini, Larsson (Cregg 72), Owusu-Abeyie, Lupoli (Smith 68), Van Persie.
2003-2004: Arsenal lose semi-final first-leg 1-0 to Midlesbrough, lose second-leg 2-1 (3-1 agg)
1st leg line-up: Stack; Touré, Keown, Cygan, Clichy; Parlour, Gilberto Silva, Edu, Bentley (Smith, 74); Kanu, Owusu-Abeyie (Thomas, 64).
2nd leg line-up: Stack, Toure, Keown, Cygan, Cole, Parlour, Vieira, Edu, Clichy (Owusu-Abeyie 81), Reyes, Bentley.
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