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Feb 21, 2008

Berbatov carries Spurs' hopes

Carling Cup Final: Tottenham v Chelsea - 15.00 GMT

The League Cup win in 1999 was Tottenham Hotspur's last major honour and in Sunday's final they face a Chelsea team, who, in the same time period, have won that trophy twice, along with two FA Cups and two Premier League titles.

The current holders of what is now branded the Carling Cup will start as favourites and if you believe in omens they also seem favourable for the Blues.

When Didier Drogba banged in two goals to beat Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium one year ago, Chelsea were still very much involved - as they are this season - in three other competitions. The Ivorian striker has just returned to fitness and to the team on the eve of this year's final, following his exertions at the Africa Cup of Nations.

The Carling Cup was also the first piece of silverware won by Jose Mourinho. Perhaps the same will be true for his successor, the less volatile but so far equally effective Avram Grant.

Chelsea do, however, face a Spurs team rejuvenated under manager Juande Ramos, something of a cup specialist himself with back-to-back UEFA Cup triumphs at Sevilla. The Spaniard now has a difficult decision to make in the goalkeeping department, following Radek Cerny's blunder in the first leg of Tottenham's UEFA Cup tie against Slavia Prague. Cerny's error against his former club could open the door for out of favour Paul Robinson and if he is recalled for the return fixture, it would suggest that he will retain the jersey for the Wembley final.

One player unlikely to feature against the Czechs is Spurs captain, Ledley King, who presumably will be rested so that he is available to partner Jonathan Woodgate against Chelsea. Woodgate's own performances since his arrival during the January transfer window mean that he is - barring injury - guaranteed a place in the final line-up.

Given the injury to Michael Dawson, Spurs are doubly fortunate that Woodgate did not appear for former club Middlesbrough in the earlier rounds of the competition and so is not cup-tied. With the other recent defensive signing, Alan Hutton, almost certain to start, it remains only for Ramos to name the other full-back. The rest of the team would appear to more or less pick itself.

Life is less easy for Avram Grant as his injured players have all returned to fitness at the same time. As he put it - although not very helpfully - before Chelsea's midweek tie with Olympiacos: 'I don't know which is more of a headache: the situation now or the one I had two or three months ago. This is less of a headache. This is part of life as a manager at a big club. I don't call it a headache.'

The cause of his 'headache' is that he has a full squad to pick from for the first time since he took over from Mourinho in September. Frank Lampard and John Terry are both back to fitness and Drogba and Michael Essien are back from Africa. The first two in particular will be raring to go, since both were rested for the game in Greece: all four could feature in the Carling Cup Final.

The challenge for Grant is who to leave out from his highly talented and experienced group of players. Some headache!

But big match experience also runs through the Spurs team, although not always at club level and almost never with a medal to show for it. Woodgate, for example, has played in four semi-finals. Robbie Keane may have scored over 100 Premiership goals but he has never appeared in a major final. The same is true of Paul Robinson, despite winning more than 40 caps for England.

A notable exception is Dimitar Berbatov, who, in addition to domestic success with CSKA Sofia, came off the bench for Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Hampden Park. As has been the case for much of the season, the hopes of the Spurs fans are pinned mostly on the mercurial Bulgarian striker.

Ahead of Sunday's game, Ramos and Grant - while expressing a desire to win at Wembley - have prioritized success in Europe, in the UEFA Cup and Champions League respectively. A certain amount of psychology may be at work, however, since each manager is looking for his first trophy in the English game. As a consequence, the stakes are higher than they often are for the Carling Cup and, with both sides capable of flowing football, an entertaining final is in prospect.


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