There is a new sensation in English football, and it has nothing to do with the Premier League title, Champions League qualification or even the magic of the FA Cup.
The humble League Cup, the competition Arsene Wenger famously designated his club's fifth most-important priority, is now the only thing anyone wants to talk about.
And with good reason.
The eight matches played this week produced 37 goals—an average of more than four per contest—and two instant classics.
First, on Tuesday, Arsenal erased an early 4-0 deficit before beating Reading 7-5 in a wacky extra-time extravaganza. Theo "Sign Da Ting" Walcott came within a potential goal-line controversy of a hat trick, and forgotten man Marouane Chamakh—Marouane Chamakh!—scored twice, including Arsenal's match-sealing seventh.
Then, on Wednesday, Chelsea exacted revenge on Manchester United with a thrilling 5-4 extra-time victory at Stamford Bridge. The Blues thrice fell behind and thrice equalized—the last instance coming deep in second-half stoppage time—before sending United out of the competition with two goals in extra time.
Eden Hazard impressed as usual as Stamford Bridge rocked and raged throughout. The tension was real, the drama was high and both teams genuinely wanted to beat the other.
And that match came just days after United's controversy-packed win at the same venue—a spectacle that featured two red cards (one highly disputed), an offside winner and post-match accusations of referee racism. In some ways, then, Wednesday's match almost had to be memorable.
Earlier this week, this writer asked whether anyone was watching and whether anyone cared. How silly.
Far from insignificant, the Capital One Cup provided fans with ludicrously watchable television, wildly entertaining competition and almost nonstop dramatic tension. While it's true that the biggest teams fielded weakened teams, the players out on the pitch clearly played hard and wanted to win.
Eight teams now remain, three of which play outside the Premier League. The quarterfinal tie between Norwich City and Aston Villa is guaranteed to reduce the Premier League's representation by another team, and both Leeds United (against Chelsea) and Bradford City (against Arsenal) will fancy their chances at home.
In other words, the Capital One Cup represents something of a departure from the style of the Premier League. It's a change that some welcome, as Paul Wilson writes in The Guardian:
Only a few teams can win anything now, and the amount of investment it takes to join them means the business of winning has to be taken seriously.
The Premier League is a cut-throat, survive-at-all-costs sort of business, whereas the League Cup, in its various guises, has become an ideal antidote, a reminder that back somewhere in the mists of time the game used to be played for the sheer fun of it.
In modern English football, winning the League Cup ranks nowhere near the top of the checklist. In fact, depending on the club in question, its value rests somewhere between the FA Cup and a fourth-place league finish.
But as this week showed, the competition has plenty of potential.
And when that potential is properly tapped, there exist few better spectacles in the game.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!