The quarterfinal round of the Carling Cup gets under way Tuesday with three big matches featuring four powerhouse Premier League sides.
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Arsenal host Manchester City, while Chelsea face the Liverpool side that beat them a week ago last Sunday. Also, Championship side Cardiff City look to spring an upset on troubled Blackburn.
And finally, the Carling Cup quarterfinals conclude Wednesday when Manchester United look to down Championship stragglers Crystal Palace.
Thomas Vermaelen (L) scores Arsenal’s equalizer against Fulham and rushes to thank provider Theo Walcott (R). (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Arsenal enter Tuesday’s game nursing a hangover of sorts: Saturday, a flukish own goal left them with a draw against Fulham in an often turgid match. That game was an object lesson in how much the Champions League midweek takes out of all teams, and the only solace the Gunners will have is that City are also showing the same strains after a disastrous night in Naples.
Against Liverpool on Sunday, it was only the goalkeeping heroics of Joe Hart that kept City from their first league defeat of the season after a Joleon Lescott own goal brought Liverpool level.
Mario Balotelli was sent off in the match (meaning he and Gareth Barry will miss Tuesday’s game) and City looked increasingly fatigued as the waves of players in red hurtled forward.
The question hanging over the game is how seriously both teams will take it. While pride is surely at stake — and this could be the first time that City’s Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri meet their former employers — it is difficult to gauge the Manchester giants’ true intent.
For Arsenal, who have little chance of winning the league and are already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League, this would seem a must-win game, although they also must respect the strain on their top players after a busy month.
Arguably, the Cup represents the Gunners’ best chance to win a piece of silverware and they would surely like to avenge last year’s disastrous final wherein they gifted Birmingham the trophy.
City, on the other hand, may have to be a bit more pragmatic. While their fans would surely wish that they field a full strength side — something they have not done in previous Cup games — the fact is City faces a punishing near-term schedule with a must-win-and-hope challenge in Germany against Bayern Munich on the horizon. Following that, City must also face Chelsea and Arsenal (again) in a punishing two-week league stretch.
The bottom line is this will be a match-up of two tired teams. Look for Arsenal to try and press the issue by milking their key players Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie and Alex Song for one more game while City try to hold serve while giving David Silva and Yaya Toure a rest. It may not be the prettiest game; if there’s ever a fixture to watch out for mistakes in, it’s this one.
Liverpool looked impressive against a Manchester City side that had Mario Balotelli sent off. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
For sliding Chelsea, this tournament offers another chance to right the ship. They have yet to beat a Big Six team this season and lost to Leverkusen midweek, but got a deserved win over an appallingly bad Wolves side on Saturday. Liverpool — who looked magnetic and confident Sunday — may be tired but they also look like their five-man midfield is gelling. Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson, Lucas and Dirk Kuyt have all been excellent over the past few weeks and with Craig Bellamy expected to get another start, this could be another trap match for the Blues.
Chelsea have also struggled in this tournament: they needed penalties to beat Fulham in the third round and were rescued deep into extra time by Daniel Sturridge to get past Everton in the fourth. Liverpool have been untroubled in contrast, and of course swept them aside in the league with “King” Kenny Dalgish’s tactics befuddling the less-experienced Andre Villas-Boas.
The pressure is on the Blues to get wins, but they also face a daunting near-term schedule and may be forced to let this one slide: a must-win against Valencia is sandwiched between tough games against Newcastle and Manchester City. Europe is far more compelling to the Blues, so don’t bet against the Reds in this one.
Cardiff haven’t exactly torn up this year’s League Cup, but they have been very good in the Championship and surely professional in getting this far. Nonetheless, Blackburn is a major test for the Welsh side that will also have been affected by the sudden death of Wales manager Gary Speed on Sunday.
That allowed, Malky Mackay must like his side’s chances against a reeling Blackburn. That team is in chaos, with fans calling for Steve Kean to not only be sacked but drawn and quartered to boot, and the owners to be sent back to India in disgrace. Neither is likely to happen in the short term, but the fact remains that Rovers look dreadful and can’t be any better than a decent Championship side. They look like they have a lot of players who have simply given up, but have a Cup hero in Ruben Rochina.
For Cardiff, Scotsman Don Cowie has been superb for them in the Cup and if top scorer Peter Whittingham can keep his form, the Welsh side will be very difficult to handle. Tip them for the upset.
Wednesday’s game sees Manchester United against Crystal Palace in what should be a mismatch. Palace have been left searching for goals of late and are mired mid-table in the Championship. But beware: they’ve been pretty good in this tournament, collecting Wigan’s scalp very early on. They’ll need to hold that form — and find a goal or two — against a United side that probably should have come away with all three points Saturday against Newcastle.
United have a critical game coming up against Basel and Ferguson has said he will make a "complete change" for the game. Although romantics might tip the Londoners for an upset, it’s not smart to bet against Sir Alex in this one.