Jose Mourinho has form for using the EFL Cup as a catalyst for bigger successes. It was the first silverware he won in each of his two spells with Chelsea in 2005 and 2015, and his maiden trophy with Manchester United a year later. Both clubs went on to better things, and Mourinho will now be targeting the same after a 2-0 win over Brentford sealed Tottenham Hotspur’s place in the Carabao Cup final and a chance to end the club’s 13-year wait for major honours.
Mourinho, of course, has never been judged primarily on his record in this competition. Chelsea and United perennially want to compete for Premier League and Champions League glory, and equally Spurs’ leading stars will not have their appetite sated solely by winning English football’s least important competition.
But it feels a particularly big hurdle for Tottenham given the weight of history on their shoulders. Mauricio Pochettino achieved everything other than a trophy in his five and a half years at the club, and chairman Daniel Levy gambled on replacing him with Mourinho for one reason above all others: he wins things.
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This 90 minutes was close to another archetypal Mourinho display, relatively free of the “Spursy” moments that have contributed to eight successive FA Cup semifinal defeats. Their record in this competition is better, having won two of their three semis since lifting the trophy in 2008 and there is always the superstition about “When the Year Ends In One,” a song the club released to celebrate reaching the FA Cup final in 1991. They won the trophy that year, just as they lifted silverware in 1901, 1921, 1951, 1961, 1971 and 1981.
There was plenty to concern the home side before kickoff with Brentford arriving as Championship high flyers and conquerors of four Premier League sides already to reach this point. Yet Mourinho got the early goal his tactical approach favours, Moussa Sissoko planting a 12th-minute header past Brentford goalkeeper David Raya from Sergio Reguilon’s pinpoint cross.
Spurs could then prioritise staying compact while picking off Brentford on the break. The game was relatively incident free — just as Mourinho would welcome — before VAR ruled out Ivan Toney’s goal midway through the second half and Son Heung-Min raced clear to double Tottenham’s advantage seven minutes later.
The presence of Son and Harry Kane in Mourinho’s starting lineup was evidence he left nothing to chance — Brentford’s threat was ended in the 84th minute when Josh Dasilva was sent off for a challenge on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg lacking malice but also control as he appeared to slip changing direction — and that was precisely because of the impact he knows this competition can have. The final is traditionally in February, providing teams with an early fillip fortifying them for other challenges, but in Tottenham’s case it would shatter a glass ceiling that has thickened over time while further vindicating Levy’s somewhat controversial appointment of Mourinho.
He has repeatedly talked about changing this squad’s mentality, discovering a mental resilience that can enable them to challenge the very best.
“If you see the winners, you realise that the big clubs, they want to win it,” Mourinho said after the match. “Who was the last winner apart from the normal top six? Swansea? I don’t know because I’m not very good on stats but I remember Man City winning a lot of times, I remember Chelsea winning a lot of times, I remember United winning a few times, I remember Liverpool in finals, I don’t know if they won it recently but I remember Liverpool in finals, Arsenal … so the big clubs, they care about it. They care about it. No doubts. And the final says a lot: Tottenham against Manchester United or Tottenham against Man City.
“I came to England in 2004 and I remember in that period I had to learn the meaning of the cups here, and I always took it seriously. If there is any secret, it’s to always take it seriously and respect the teams with smaller quality and go with ambition. What I sense in the team is that winning mentality. The guys took it seriously.
He must hope reaching the final will have some sort of effect this season given the Wembley showpiece has been moved to April 25 in the hope fans will be able to attend as the COVID-19 vaccine reaches more of the population.
“I am supportive of [the game being rescheduled] because it is a special situation,” Mourinho said. “If the final is in the beginning of February, the country is in lockdown, no supporters in the stadium, not even a fan who can get out in the street with a flag celebrating a victory of his team. I support totally the 25th April, gives us some time. We pray for it, hopefully the world changes and improves a little bit. I’m not expecting a full Wembley but maybe we can have some supporters. So I am fully supportive. I prefer that final being played at the end of April.”
This time, Tottenham will have Mourinho on their side. He was in the opposite dugout when Pochettino took Spurs to Wembley in 2015, masterminding a 2-0 Chelsea win that forms part of a record in major English domestic finals that reads: played six, won five, lost one.
Spurs were noticeably shaken by losing at Liverpool on Dec. 16, not winning again until Jan. 2 as a title challenge began to slip towards the horizon. After beating Leeds United, this win puts a final in their pocket as they seek to kick on at home and, eventually, abroad.
If Mourinho’s record is anything to go by, Tottenham fans could be forgiven for getting excited about how far that confidence might take them.