Carabao Cup provides Chelsea and Spurs a glimmer of light at end of darkening tunnel

Mauricio Pochettino’s latest magic trick has been to squeeze more out of Tottenham Hotspur’s increasingly thinning squad than appears to be physically possible.

A bit like when Jesus fed the thousands with seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes. A little can go a long way, seems to be one meaning of that fable and that certainly applies to Spurs. Yet surely there are only so many miracles the Argentinian can perform.

There are always points around this time of the season where the biggest clubs edge dangerously close to the precipice of underachievement, and unless they are able to keep their balance can end up over the edge and on the steady decline to another trophy-less season, hoping that when eventually they come to rest it will be in a Champions League qualification place.

That time is now for both Chelsea and Spurs, who meet in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night.

Turn for the worse #1

Tottenham’s turn for the worse has been brought on by the injury to and absence of their key attacking trio. Were it not bad enough that they lost Harry Kane until mid-March with an ankle injury and could be without Son Heung-min until possibly the start of February should South Korea reach the Asian Cup final, the last thing Pochettino needed was to lose Dele Alli to the persistent hamstring problem which has plagued him all season — for a thinning squad to start looking dangerously frayed.

Alli, too, is out until early March, it was announced on Tuesday, meaning one of the Premier League’s most potent double-acts — Kane’s Ant to Alli’s Dec — will only be back after the club have tried to surpass Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final with the slender 1-0 advantage from the home leg, played them and Arsenal in the league, taken on Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund over two legs in the Champions League last 16 and possibly faced Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final.

Kane, Alli and Son have scored 27 league goals apiece this season, more than half of Tottenham’s 48-goal total and a big hole that you struggle to see Fernando Llorente and Lucas Moura filling.

Turn for the worse #2

Chelsea’s turn for the worse has been prompted by two defeats in three, in games against rivals Tottenham and Arsenal, which has caused them to drop what appears to be too far away from Liverpool and Manchester City at the top of the table.

Read more: Maurizio Sarri watches clock tick towards Higuain deadline ahead of Chelsea’s Carabao Cup decider against Spurs

Much of the pressure, it should be said, has been heaped upon Maurizio Sarri, by none other than Sarri himself. The 60-year-old Italian placed himself on a collision course with his players by describing them as “extremely difficult to motivate” following defeat to Arsenal on Sunday. Is he aware that in recent years Chelsea’s players have written the playbook on a dressing room revolt? A bold move, either way.

Is Higuain the answer for Chelsea?

They have badly lacked a presence up front, with Alvaro Morata set to join Atletico Madrid on loan and Olivier Giroud seemingly uninterested in scoring goals. Sarri has turned to Gonzalo Higuain on loan as the answer, although he was not registered by Wednesday’s midday deadline to play against Spurs. That’s a lot of pressure on a 31-year-old forward previously branded “fat” by supporters and once described by Sarri as “too lazy” in the pair’s one season together at Napoli.

Read more: Can Gonzalo Higuain solve Chelsea’s problems in front of goal?

In fairness, that prompted Higuain’s Serie A record-breaking 36 goals in 35 league games, perhaps giving Sarri the confidence that his harsh approach has produced results in the past.

Fed to the Carabaos

As the season’s curtain threatens to start closing early on these two London clubs, the shiny League Cup provides a glimmer of light in the distance.

This is the glory of the Premier League’s richness now and supporters should not take this era for granted. No longer is it Manchester United and Arsenal fighting out for all the trophies between them, right now English football’s top-flight has six high-quality sides with half-a-dozen of the world’s best managers (OK — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is currently the world’s best caretaker rather than manager), yet while all expect to be challenging for the league and qualifying for the Champions League, six does not go into one, nor four (and there’s your maths lesson for the day, folks).

Once derided as the trophy nobody cares about, despite now sharing the name of a swamp-type water buffalo native to the Philippines, in the increasingly competitive cauldron of English football the Carabao Cup is becoming an early way to satiate the masses: a chunk of meat to throw to the wolves, who nowadays appear howling at the door after only a couple of defeats in a month. Not such an easy task, when all you have are some small fishes and a few loaves of bread.

This post first appeared here

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