The re-branded EFL Cup has reached its semi-final stage and with Premier League quintet Manchester United, Hull City, Southampton and Liverpool comprising the competition’s final four, we’ve put together a few notes on each, heading into this week’s first leg matches.
2016-17 semi-finalists Hull City are one of four current Premier League clubs to have never reached a League Cup Final in any of its incarnations. An unwelcome distinction currently shared with Bournemouth, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Watford, City had in fact never even reached the quarter-final stage, prior to the current season. The closest the Tigers had previously come was in 1974, as the then-second tier side held double-chasing Liverpool to a scoreless draw on Humberside, only to fall to a 3-1 defeat in the Anfield second leg. Coincidentally, 1974 was also the year that Hull recorded their last success against this week’s semi-final opponents Manchester United, a 2-0 Second Division win at their old Boothferry Park home. This season, Hull might have been forgiven for devoting the tiger’s share of their focus to Premier League survival. Nonetheless, successive wins over Exeter City, Stoke City, Bristol City and Newcastle United have given the promoted squad the chance of their second Wembley appearance in 12 months, after beating Sheffield Wednesday in last season’s Championship play-off final. Encouraged by Saturday’s FA Cup Third Round victory over relegation rivals Swansea City, Hull have tackled Manchester United before in the EFL Cup, but will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the 6-0 aggregate defeat suffered in 1987-88.
After successive quarter-final appearances in 2014 and 2015, the 2016-17 season sees Southampton’s first League Cup semi-final in 30 years, with the identical roadblock of Liverpool standing in the way of a long-awaited return to Wembley. Rewinding further, Southampton’s only League Cup Final appearance to date was in 1979, as Laurie McMenemy’s Saints initially led Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, only to be beaten by three goals to two. At that season’s semi-final round, Southampton were involved in another exciting encounter, playing out a 2-2 draw with Leeds United, before edging through by a single goal in the decisive second leg. Southampton’s semi-final with Liverpool this Wednesday meanwhile brings with it added interest, following a flurry of transfer activity between the clubs in recent times. Since the Saints returned to the Premier League fold in 2012, Liverpool have broken the bank to bring Southampton stars to Anfield, from Adam Lallana to Nathaniel Clyne to Dejan Lovre. Nevertheless, the Saints would shrug off these losses in personnel to finish three points above Liverpool in the EPL last term, joining West Ham United in securing European football at the Merseysiders’ expense. Perceived as one of the top flight’s top overachievers, it would only be fitting for Southampton to cap a purple patch in their history with EFL Cup silverware. Nevertheless, Liverpool’s pedigree in the competition, combined with an encouraging season so far, ensures they start the two-legged tie as favourites.
Liverpool have appeared in more League Cup Finals than any other club, lifting the trophy on a record eight occasions. In addition, though perhaps unsurprisingly, no-one has appeared in more League Cup semi-finals, with the Reds making it this far an impressive 17 times. This season has seen Jurgen Klopp’s squad set their sights on the trophy once more, after coming within a whisker of penalty shoot-out glory last February. During their road to Wembley and the 2016 final, the Reds were conclusive 6-1 winners over upcoming opponents Southampton, despite falling behind to Sadio Mane’s first minute strike. This season sees Mane firmly in the Liverpool camp, after making a £34m switch from St. Mary’s in August. However, the Reds will be without his services in the EFL Cup semi-finals, as the in-form forward represents his native Senegal at the impending African Cup of Nations. Nevertheless, and in a note of considerable solace, LFC will be able to call on the competition’s leading goalscorer; with Daniel Sturridge’s four goals to date in this season’s cup including a decisive double in the 2-1 Fourth Round win over Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool secured their semi-final berth with a 2-0 victory over Leeds United at Anfield, on a night that saw Welsh international youngster Ben Woodburn become the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer. However, with Klopp’s young guns stuttering in their FA Cup Third Round tie with Plymouth at the weekend, a return of more established heads may be in the offing for the match at St. Mary’s this Wednesday evening.
Finally, Manchester United are the only EFL Cup semi-finalists who remain in the hunt for four major trophies, with the club vying simultaneously for Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Europa League honours. Given the demands of their multi-pronged challenge, the EFL Cup might seem a fourth priority, yet manager Jose Mourinho has shown the knockout trophy respect with his team selections, as the club looks to reach their first final since 2010. The winning goalscorer that day in a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa was a 25-year old Wayne Rooney and now, almost six years on, the England forward could use the occasion this evening to finally break Sir Bobby Charlton’s long-standing goalscoring record. With one eye on the Tigers, United will cocurrently have another on potential final opponents Liverpool, who they meet at Old Trafford in a crunch Premier League encounter this coming weekend. Should the northern rivals each progress unscathed from their respective EFL Cup ties, fans could then be treated to a repeat of the 2003 final in Cardiff, a match that Liverpool won by two goals to nil. With United’s sterling Fourth Round performance against visitors West Ham showing glimpses of the side’s enormous potential, could more of the same be in store tonight? AC