Neatly sandwiched between all the festive games in England are the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup. Four of the usual Big Six in the Premier League are in action, with Arsenal hosting Manchester City, while Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton will look to continue their gradual rise with a victory over resurgent Manchester United. Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur travel to Stoke, while Brentford welcome Newcastle United to west London. Here’s our preview of the quarterfinals.
Last season’s losing Championship playoff finalists have been through their usual offseason rejig, where the bigger fish pick off their brightest talents. Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa) and Said Benrahma (West Ham) departed for the Premier League over the summer, but Brentford’s fine planning meant the transition to this season has been seamless. They are undefeated in 13 games and beat Reading 3-1 at the weekend to go fourth in the Championship, with Bryan Mbeumo looking like he’s found top form after grabbing a brace.
Brentford’s recruitment and analytics strategies — where they bring young talent straight into their B-team, having done away with the academy — have drawn envious glances from higher up the food chain, and the club look capable of punching above their weight. While Watkins is living up to his £27m price tag in the Premier League at Villa, his replacement Ivan Toney — signed from Peterborough for £5m plus add-ons — has filled his sizeable shoes with aplomb. He has 16 goals already this season and will hope to leave his mark on Newcastle: a club where he spent four seasons but only played 41 minutes as a youngster.
Newcastle’s recruitment strategy seems a little more slapdash, and while Brentford enjoy relative calm in the boardroom, the Magpies seem to be stuck in a cycle of speculation and posturing over ownership and long-term direction. They drew 1-1 with Fulham on Saturday in a game that had further VAR controversy, and sit 12th in the Premier League.
It’s hardly groundbreaking form, but equally it’s testament to manager Steve Bruce that he can keep the ship out of choppy waters amid the political wrangling behind the scenes and the COVID-19 outbreak at the club. Newcastle have concerns over who’ll be fit to play at centre-back, but Bruce should be optimistic about reaching the semifinals.
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When these two last met in a cup competition, Arsenal were enjoying the welcome warmth of optimism under new boss Mikel Arteta. Arsenal knocked Pep Guardiola’s City out of the FA Cup semifinals in July and went on to win the trophy, which was seen as the first giant step in the Arteta revolution. But fast forward four months and Arsenal are at rock bottom — 15th in the Premier League, with their last win coming on Nov. 1.
Arteta is now favourite to be the next manager sacked, though it seems as if the club will back him despite the 2-1 defeat at Everton on Saturday seeing Arsenal slip into a relegation fight. Arteta will use the Carabao Cup as a chance to shuffle his pack, but don’t expect to see captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in action as he recovers from a calf injury. The manager has also done his best to play down hopes of 19-year-old forward Gabriel Martinelli being Arsenal’s saviour, though Gunners fans need something to cheer about at the moment.
Things are also a little uneasy at City, with the club seventh in the league. However, with Pep Guardiola tied down to a new deal, there is far more certainty at the Etihad than at the Emirates. The defence has been solid (they have conceded 12 league goals, the fewest of the 20 teams) so Guardiola could use this game as a chance to give Aymeric Laporte some game time with Ruben Dias and John Stones the new-preferred centre-back partnership but, like Arsenal, they are still searching for a way to solve their goal-scoring problems.
City beat Southampton 1-0 on Saturday without a recognised centre forward in the team, with injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, but Guardiola admits it is unlikely they will be able to strengthen that area in January. With the league slipping away, don’t expect Guardiola to take this match lightly though; he’s likely to field a strong side and rub salt into the wounds of his former assistant Arteta.
Could this finally be the match where we see the real Gareth Bale? Bale’s loan return to Tottenham from Real Madrid this summer was greeted with monumental fanfare, but he’s still finding his feet and was attempting to fill a number of roles across the front line when he came on at half-time in their 2-0 defeat to Leicester on Sunday.
Bale should start, but it will be fascinating to see what manager Jose Mourinho does elsewhere. Dele Alli’s future is uncertain and, despite failing to make the bench vs. Leicester even with nine subs allowed, the midfielder may get a chance to stake his claim against Stoke, while other players who could also feature include Harry Winks, loan striker Carlos Vinicius, defender Joe Rodon and backup goalkeeper Joe Hart. Mourinho has favoured a fairly settled lineup this season, but this is a chance for those on the fringes to stake their claim.
Stoke sit in seventh in the Championship but, while Michael O’Neill is doing a superb job at the bet365 Stadium, they have a real issue in goal with Joe Bursik cup-tied and Adam Davies, Angus Gunn, Niki Maenpaa and Nathan Broome all injured. It’ll either be veteran free signing Andy Lonergan, who is 37, or 19-year-old debutant Blondy Nna Noukeu who starts against Spurs, but the club have a remarkable record of keeping clean sheets this year, with 23 in 46 games.
Stoke are also weathering the blow of having star striker Tyrese Campbell potentially out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. He joins a lengthy injury list, but O’Neill took heart from seeing Joe Allen back in training, while former Chelsea star John Obi Mikel is also close to returning. Both are unlikely to feature, but given Stoke’s long list of absentees, if they manage to beat Spurs it’ll be some feat.
When Carlo Ancelotti took over from Marco Silva at Everton nearly a year ago, they were in the relegation zone. Now they are title challengers with eight wins from 14 games, five points off top spot. He’s got striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin performing to his best — someone he sees as Everton’s version of the great Filippo Inzaghi — while his summer signings Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure, James Rodriguez and Ben Godfrey have all settled into life at Goodison Park nicely. Rodriguez is set to feature against United after recovering from injury and the team will be under no illusions to what this game means to Ancelotti.
The Italian is overdue some silverware; his last major title came when he won the Bundesliga at Bayern Munich in April 2017. But with 20 major titles as a manager, winning courses through his veins and he knows what it takes to succeed. In this unlikely marriage, Everton are also hoping to end a trophy drought: it’s been 25 long years since they won the 1995 FA Cup … against Man United.
Meanwhile, United head to Goodison Park off the back of a remarkable 6-2 win over Leeds on Sunday, a match that included 43 shots on goal. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have been unpredictable this season but sit third in the Premier League and will fancy their chances against Everton, having won 3-1 in the league back in November.
This match falls in the middle of a potentially season-defining run for United with Leicester, Wolves and Aston Villa all lying in wait, but Solskjaer will still field a strong team for Wednesday. Dean Henderson may get another start in goal, while the likes of Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba, Brandon Williams, Alex Telles, Mason Greenwood and Donny van de Beek should feature.