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Feb 26, 2011

Ex-players believe Cup can be catalyst

For those who question the importance of the Carling Cup, just ask Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea what impact the competition has had for them. All three clubs have proved in recent years that a triumph in the League Cup can serve to whet a side's appetite for success and lead to further glory.

In 2004, Jose Mourinho's Blues beat Liverpool to hand "the Special One" his first trophy on English soil. He selected a full-strength side in every round and stressed after the final that claiming the silverware was a key part of his grand plan at Stamford Bridge. Three months later and they were Premier League champions for the first time in half a century. Of course, at the time they won the Carling Cup, they were already well on their way to securing the league title, but Mourinho believed the competition was important nonetheless.

A year later and Sir Alex Ferguson's United side thrashed Wigan 4-0 to lift the Carling Cup. It was the first taste of major silverware for the developing Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo - who would of course go on to spearhead United's three straight Premier League triumphs and the 2008 Champions League victory.

Tottenham were the Carling Cup winners on 2007 and, though manager Juande Ramos was ushered out of the exit door only months later, the victory over reigning league champions Chelsea in a major final provided a sense of belief among the players that they could mix it with the big boys. The League Cup triumph gave the club a platform to move forward and two years later, many of the same players were pivotal in Spurs' inaugural qualification for the Champions League.

On Sunday, the opportunity is similarly there for Arsenal and Birmingham to secure a major trophy that could provide the catalyst for future success.

That the 2005 FA Cup was the Gunners' last taste of silverware is well documented, but few would have predicted in the intervening years that the club's best chance of ending the drought would come via the Carling Cup. It is a competition that Arsenal have not won since 1993 and the philosophy of Arsene Wenger has, for many years, been to use the tournament as a platform to blood the numerous talented teenagers at his disposal. There have been impressive performances aplenty and semi-final heartbreak along the way, but the inexperienced youngsters have always fallen short.

According to former Arsenal left-back Nigel Winterburn, who was part of the Gunners side that lifted their last League Cup 18 years ago, Wenger has now realised that giving the players a first taste of silverware could be crucial to their chances of further glory.

"I must say I was surprised when I heard recently that we hadn't won it since 1993," Winterburn tells ESPNsoccernet. "But they've been to the final against Chelsea in 2007 and to a few semis. There wasn't any particular emphasis on youth in the Carling Cup when Arsene first took over, as far as I can remember we always played our strongest team in the competition. He didn't rest seven or eight players as he has done in recent seasons and we went into the games generally with our first-team squad. That was just a philosophy that he developed over the years.

"It's easy for people to make that assessment that 'they've put out weakened teams and haven't taken it seriously' but for Wenger it's been about the football education of his young players. We haven't seen that young team this season and I believe that in the final the team will be the strongest he has available to him.

"I'm not sure if it's down to the naming of the 25-man squads, or the fact that Arsenal have got a lot of the younger players out on loan, but Arsene hasn't really gone with so many of the younger lads this season. He's had a good blend of youth and experience - though a lot of the experienced players at the club aren't even that old.

"There's been a different focus and I think there's a feeling they want to win something so everyone can stop talking about the drought. It will help breed confidence when they win their first trophy and as a player, when you win the first one, you're desperate to get that second one soon after. Hopefully it can be the catalyst for more success."

Winterburn had two contrasting experiences of the League Cup as a player. In his first final with Arsenal in 1987 he missed a penalty as the Gunners threw away a two-goal lead to be upset 3-2 by Luton, though redemption came in 1993 when George Graham's side beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1. Arsenal were favourites on both occasions - as they will be on Sunday - and Winterburn fully expects the Gunners to emerge victorious, though he is all too aware of the pitfalls of taking the opposition for granted.

"Arsenal are going into the game as big favourites but cup finals always tend to be quite tight, quite tense affairs. Against Luton we were comfortable at 2-0 and, even when I missed the penalty, we weren't really that concerned because we fully expected to go on and win the game. But all of a sudden it changed pretty dramatically and we lost 3-2, it was a great game to play in but not great memories. Birmingham, are well organised defensively and they are definitely capable of causing an upset. It will be interesting to see how adventurous they will be and how much pressure they can put on.

"This time, Arsenal have picked up a couple of injuries, with Walcott and Fabregas out, but I'm hoping they will show their superiority and from what I've heard the pitch is looking absolutely outstanding, which will suit their pass and move style. There is always the risk of nerves but I'm just expecting on the day, with their desire to win something, that they should have too much quality for Birmingham."

For Birmingham City, the trophy drought is a touch longer. The 1963 League Cup victory remains their only major piece of silverware, so Alex McLeish's side have a genuine opportunity to become club legends should they overcome the odds to defeat the Gunners.

Blues came close to an upset a decade ago, but fell to an agonising shootout defeat to Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium. They were a Championship side then and former defender Michael Johnson, who played in Cardiff that day, believes McLeish's charges are much better placed to achieve victory, despite being underdogs again.

"Of course Birmingham could upset the odds," Johnson tells ESPNsoccernet. ''If you look at how Arsenal struggled in the FA Cup against Leeds, Huddersfield and Leyton Orient - if they play like that and take Birmingham lightly they could come unstuck. Back in 2001, we were in the Championship and Liverpool were flying, on their way to a Treble. But we took them to penalties - it shows anything can happen in a one-off game.

"It was definitely one of the biggest days of my career; I remember the build up, the trip down to the Millennium Stadium and the sea of blue and white. You walk into the stadium, you see the fans going bananas, scarves flying everywhere and you realise it's the pinnacle of a player's career to play in a major cup final. The lads will go through the same feelings we all did in 2001.

"The players and will give it all that they've got on Sunday and will of course be roared on by the fanatical Birmingham City fans as well. You never know, it just might be there day. Fabregas is out; Walcott is out - so if ever there is a chance to go and beat Arsenal in a major final, this is it!"

"We got promoted the season after that final and I think a big part of that was down to our experience in the final. We realised we could mix it with the best having nearly beaten Liverpool. We grew in stature and our confidence grew and hopefully Birmingham can similarly kick on again after Sunday if they play well and perform.

"They will need to be defensively solid as Arsenal can pass any team off the planet if they are allowed to They have to get in their faces. But Arsenal's Achilles heel has for a long time been set plays and Birmingham certainly have the bigger lads to expose that and then hopefully they can keep it tight at the back too.

"Winning a trophy is long overdue, I get a lot of stick from my friend [former Aston Villa captain Ian Taylor] - when I say Birmingham are a bigger club than Villa, he always replies 'what cups have you won in the past couple of decades?' And he's right, we need to start winning some silverware and what better way than to do it against one of the best teams in the land on Sunday."

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