Arsenal vs Manchester City: Carabao Cup Final Preview

(Photo credit: Nicholas Gemini)

As Sunday's Carabao Cup final approaches, the two finalists find themselves similarly disappointed in recent weeks.

True to form, Arsenal continue to oscillate between looking competent and incompetent. Knocked out of the Carabao Cup's big brother, the FA Cup, by Nottingham Forest, Arsenal progressed through to the next round of the Europa League after an unconvincing second leg against Svenska Cupen winners Ostersunds FK.

With AC Milan on their horizon in Europe, Arsene Wenger's side will have to turn their immediate focus on a Manchester City side who are also out of the FA Cup after their shock upset against Wigan Athletic.

Lose this and Pep Guardiola could go from potential quadruplist to potential doublist in a couple of weeks.

Looking toward the final, RealSport's football writers sat down to assess the ins and outs of Sunday's clash. 

One of the perennial arguments about the League Cup is that it is a largely superfluous domestic trophy given the existence of the FA Cup. Do you think the League Cup has any benefits or should we just scrap it?

Alastair Pusinelli: The League Cup provides the opportunity for the so-called lesser clubs to reach Wembley and possibly even make it into Europe. With the current nature of the Premier League, the competitions still suits the top six given their significantly larger squads. For example, Chelsea defeated Nottingham Forest, an out-of-form Everton and then Bournemouth which earned them a spot in the semifinals.

The competition clearly needs to be changed, though, and, with English football having two cup competitions and no winter break, it means the Premier League teams are at a clear disadvantage when they come up against their European counterparts in Champions and Europa League action. 

With the three-handled cup having been around since 1960, it cannot just simply be scrapped but perhaps it should be reformed to the benefit of the lower league clubs. With the EFL Trophy now a laughing stock with Premier League U23 sides in the competition, the League Cup should become exactly what is called – the cup for Football League clubs. This would allow the big clubs in the Championship to fight for silverware, as they do not compete in the EFL Trophy with seven clubs in the second tier this season now having nothing to fight for (promotion or survival) with still more than a quarter of the season remaining. 

Nestor Watach: There are definitely benefits to the League Cup - as a competition not taken as seriously by the big clubs, it offers more of an opportunity than the FA Cup for a smaller team’s fans to go to Wembley and enjoy silverware, as any success is now largely monopolised by the same five or six teams. 

It also offers minutes for exceptional young players that are being developed by big clubs who won’t trust them in the bigger competitions - it’s a rare chance for the likes of Phil Foden or Brahim Diaz at Manchester City, for example. 

Scrapping the competition would limit their opportunities further. The calendar is far too congested though, and senior footballers clock up far too many minutes. A good compromise might be to codify how the big teams approach the competition, but include the latter stages too - for example, a limit of five senior players throughout.

Jon Mackenzie: English football is not unique in having a League (or secondary) Cup: French teams compete in the Coupe de la Ligue and Portuguese clubs can enjoy the Taça da Liga. However, after that point, you're looking at countries like Scotland and Iceland for the next most prominent leagues with a secondary cup.

Of course, it is easy to say that the League Cup offers a chance for lower league sides to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame. However, with the emergence of a top six in the Premier League, the existence of an additional trophy for the big teams to compete for means that it's increasingly unlikely that the smaller teams can compete.

The potential solutions to this problem are twofold: firstly, the competition could be scrapped altogether. Given the history of the cup, his would be a shame so perhaps a second option is more preferable: the competition could be narrowed in some way, removing clubs who have qualified for European competition or removing the Premier League sides entirely?

What do you think have been the most memorable moments in the competition so far this season?

AP: Obviously, you have to look at Bristol City’s run. The Robins knocked out four Premier League clubs on the trot, with their 2-1 victory over Manchester United the stand-out result of the competition. After this, Lee Johnson’s side pushed Premier League champions-elect Manchester City close in both legs of the semifinal. 

West Ham’s turnaround at Wembley against Tottenham was an important moment as although it didn’t save Slaven Bilic of his job, it did provide a platform for new manager David Moyes to build on.

Historically, one only has to look back to when Bradford City got to the final in 2013 to find examples of the 'magic of the cup' but this remarkable achievement would have certainly had more gravitas had it been an FA Cup run. 

NW: Bristol City’s cup run - knocking Manchester United out undoubtedly but also giving Manchester City a scare in the semis. 

As a single moment, nothing can beat Korey Smith’s injury-time winner to knock the holders out. No matter what happens to them this season - and they look in danger of missing out on the playoffs - it’s the kind of goal that goes into the folklore of a club.

JM: No surprises here: Bristol City's triumph over Manchester United. No one expected the Robins to hold on when Zlatan Ibrahimovic's equaliser went in. When Korey Smith put the ball in the net in injury time, it was only made more fairytale an ending by the fact that Bristol City had been well worth the victory.

Given that the two finalists come into this match on the back of very different seasons, which club do you think needs to win the trophy more? 

AP: Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s Arsenal. Following Thursday night’s wobble in the Europa League, Arsene Wenger needs his side to come out strongly on Sunday. Winning that competition is far from a guarantee for the Gunners, who will be looking to replicate what Manchester United did last season and grab a lifeline into the Champions League. 

Arsene Wenger has kept his job in recent seasons due to his performances in the FA Cup, and he may need the League Cup to do the same this season. The problem is, Arsenal haven’t won the competition since 1993.

As for Manchester City, the Premier League trophy is sewn up, and although they are out of the FA Cup following the upset against Wigan, they priority is now the Champions League. Pep Guardiola’s men probably won’t win the competition but they have the chance now to show they can cut it with the world’s best. Guardiola is yet to win a trophy at Manchester City, though, and winning at Wembley on Sunday could calm his nerves ahead of the closing stages of the Champions League.

NW: I don’t think either team desperately needs it - it’s not like it's being contested by Spurs or Liverpool where a trophy, any trophy, has a symbolic importance and ends a drought. 

Manchester City now operate at a level whereby the lesser cups are a footnote on a season, especially one in which they could record a record points total in the Premier League. But, having reached the final and going trophyless in Guardiola’s first season, they probably edge it in needing it more - a loss here, in the same week after their exit in the FA Cup to Wigan, could have a demoralising and derailing effect. They have looked imperious and strong favourites for the Champions League all season - they can’t sow the seeds of doubt now. 

For Arsenal, it’s a lite version of the FA Cup, and three of those in four years for Wenger hasn’t silenced his critics. It’s a trophy the Frenchman has never won before, but the Europa League is the one that can save their season - not only as a more prestigious and first European trophy, but also a gateway into the Champions League.

JM: It's tempting to go with the narrative and say Arsenal - they need a trophy, so the arguments go, and this is their best - or even only, given their performance again Ostersund on Thursday - chance to get one. But with Manchester City dropping out of the FA Cup at the hands of their bogey team, Wigan Athletic, this game has taken on something of a different tenor. If Pep Guardiola drops out of two cup competitions in quick succession, this previously-untouchable Manchester City will have gone from potential quadruple winners to Premier League leaders with an outside chance of the Champions League. As for Arsenal, will a League Cup save Arsene Wenger? Does he even need saving? For him, the season has to be Europa League or nothing, you feel.

Which player do you think will most likely influence the outcome of the game for either team? 

AP: Simply, Kevin De Bruyne. The blonde (? - Ed.) Belgian can dictate a game with his little finger and you can expect him to be the focal point once again on the Wembley turf. With Sergio Aguero on top form and Arsenal’s defence wavering, it’s the perfect type of game for De Bruyne to showcase his skillset. It’s a massive game for Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil who needs to show he can deliver moments magic on the grandest stages just like De Bruyne. 

NW: David Silva. Kevin De Bruyne might offer more incisiveness in the final third and be the one that creates an opening but Silva is the one who will set the tone. Manchester City are at their best when Silva is able to operate - and Arsenal are severely lacking in combative midfielders who can stop him.

JM: In Kevin we trust. For Arsenal, it feels as though all of their key players are attacking players. This could mean, ironically, that their most important players are, in fact, their defenders. Still, if a front three of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil ever had a stage upon which to shine it is this one. Expect Aubameyang to score at least one. You heard it here first.

What is your prediction for the Carabao Cup final on Sunday?

AP: Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City. City will be hungry after that cup loss and there are no signs that Arsenal could cause an upset at Wembley.

NW: A fairly comfortable win for Manchester City: 3-0. I don’t think Arsenal are capable of organising a resolute defensive display to keep them at bay and I don’t think they’ve got the players to press back and cause them issues in the same way Liverpool did. I think their approach will be an unconvincing amalgamation of the two, when they really need to commit to one or the other and hope for the best. 

JM: Last season, Arsene Wenger came into his own in the final stages of the FA Cup and don't expect anything different here. Whatever else his recent flaws, the Frenchman lives for these one-off tactical battles. That said, it's hard to see Arsenal winning this one given the fire-power Manchester City have behind them. I'm going for 2-1 to the league leaders, although I have a suspicion it could go to extra time...

What do you think will happen on Sunday? Let us know by commenting below. 

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