The league cup doesn’t help itself sometimes. Yes, money talks louder than ever before, but you do wish that its headline sponsor carried slightly more gravitas. It needn’t be an investment bank or a Middle Eastern government, but just something which isn’t green and fizzy and which doesn’t look as if it could spin a healthy heart into cardiac arrest.
Are we even sure that the trophy is still made of metal? Does the confetti still fall at Wembley, or are the victorious players now dunked in gunge by a cackling Pat Sharpe?
What are they in to in Carabao Land?
Still, beneath that tacky veneer is hiding a thoroughly likeable competition. Domestic cups get a bad press now, they’ve been lost to the all consuming seriousness of the league, but this tournament’s charm lies in exactly that: it is a break from that boom, bust, crisis, catastrophe onslaught of the regular programming. Win and its good, lose and nobody notices. It’s an uninhibited form of the game sprinkled with just enough quality to be a credible, containing just enough emerging talent to be interesting and, thanks to common sense, is now contested over single legs with no extra-time.
On Tuesday night, Wolves and Leicester tried very hard. Yes, the swirling floodlights were a little much before kick-off and fireworks always seem slightly ridiculous when a capacity crowd isn’t there to see them the burst, but the occasion itself was still doused with urgency.
That’s the crux of the issue, really, because there’s too much tomorrow in football. Too many positives are extracted from defeats, too many negatives from victory, meaning that the League Cup’s Here! Now! Tonight! formula stirs the blood.
Neither Wolves nor Leicester really warm the soul, though. Vicente Iborra thumps an early chance wide from range, clattering the hoardings and sending echoes around a three-quarters-full Molineux. Later in the first-half, Rachid Ghezzal arrives smartly at the back-post, but his prodded effort is hacked out from under the home crossbar.
It’s happening again. pic.twitter.com/nYDUjJpgtF
— Seb Stafford-Bloor (@SebSB) September 25, 2018
It is lacking some edge. The many changes rob each team of their usual chemistry and the baiting between the supporters is half-hearted, but as drab as the game’s low points are, those watching on are sustained by the knowledge that, eventually, something has to happen.
Deep down, these teams probably know that this is a free hit. Even for strong, mid-level Premier League sides the prevailing hope is to catch the bigger clubs disinterested. As long as life at the top of the division remains good, the League Cup will be free of the true predators. But Champions League campaigns can end quickly and Premier League hopes can die in an instant; soon, managers who were fielding youth players in rounds two and three can be loading their teams with internationals and desperately seeking some fire insurance.
It’s a dispiriting theme, but a liberating reality; we’re here for a good night’s football, probably nothing more.
On the pitch, Ivan Cavaleiro uses his last touch of the night to skew a good chance wide. He trudges off immediately to be replaced by Diogo Jota, knowing that he hasn’t done enough to be starting at the weekend. A little sub-plot – and a little more quality: Jota is excellent. Claude Puel responds immediately: on come Demarai Gray and Kelechi Iheanacho and, suddenly, the poker faces have slipped and both managers are acknowledging that they’d both quite like to win this. The pace of the game rises and the fans are into it. It’s still clumsy as hell, but space begins to open up and the likely matchwinners begin to drift into it.
There is no matchwinner. Both sides swing and miss with their haymakers and the tie heads to the penalty spot – without Demarai Gray unfortunately, who departs on a stretcher and with his leg in a brace.
Here’s your drama for the night then. Here’s that something you were promised. Leicester prevail. Jota, Saiss and Traore all miss from twelve yards, Danny Ward saves well twice down to his right. Eventually, Iheanacho is left with the chance to win the game: he does, sidefooting casually past a motionless Ruddy and then trotts off in a lazy jog towards his own fans. There are no pile-ons or tears, the Leicester players can barely be bothered to chase after him.
It’s fun though. Fleetingly. The kind of no-strings attached night that football doesn’t do all that often. Leicester advance, Wolves depart; both are free to concentrate their attention elsewhere.