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League Cup taking on different, added meaning for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger

League Cup taking on different, added meaning for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger
From ESPN - January 9, 2018

Arsene Wenger has never particularly cared about the League Cup, generally considering it somewhere between an inconvenience and an irrelevance.

But now, for the second time in his long Arsenal career, it has taken on a greater meaning. Arsenal's 4-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest on Sunday means Wenger is now more likely to name a strong side for this weekend's semi-final first leg trip to Chelsea. This competition is now one of only two chances for Arsenal to win silverware, and while the Europa League will also take on added importance, with its reward of Champions League qualification, for now the EFL Cup represents Arsenal's best chance of silverware -- and for Wenger to maintain his impressive recent record of cup glory.

Upon his arrival in 1996, Wenger initially took the competition seriously, fielding a strong side in a fourth-round defeat to Liverpool a few weeks after his appointment. But in his first full season, it became clear Wenger was not particularly interested. For Arsenal's opening League Cup game of 1997-98, at home to Birmingham, Wenger gave no indication he would rest players, but supporters arrived at Highbury and were left wondering who the likes of Alberto Mendez and Christopher Wreh were. They were also introduced to a young defender named Jason Crowe, who made his name by being sent off after just 33 seconds, the fastest sending-off for a debutant in English football.

Arsenal won 4-1 in extra time, but perhaps the real legacy of that display, and Wenger's attitude towards the competition, was shown later in the season. The previously unknown Wreh provided some crucial goals in the run-in. Alex Manninger, another debutant against Birmingham, proved an able deputy to David Seaman. Arsenal lost in the semi-finals of the League Cup -- to this week's opponents Chelsea (4-3 on aggregate), in their first game under Gianluca Vialli's management -- but won the Premier League and FA Cup, and Wenger suggested that introducing newcomers to English football in a minor competition had worked effectively.

That became Arsenal's default approach. The following season Wenger again rotated heavily for the competition, and the Gunners were thrashed 5-0 at home by Chelsea in the fourth round. "I knew before the game that this kind of thing might happen," Wenger said afterwards. "You only had to look at the teamsheets. If we had won I would still have gone on playing the same side because the players need the experience."

This was largely embraced by Arsenal supporters. Two years later they lost 2-1 to Ipswich in the third round, and there was no backlash. In fact, the result "was greeted by generous applause from a 26,000 crowd who had been given a 25 percent discount on their seat prices, some great entertainment and a glimpse into Arsenal's future," read the BBC report. Now Arsenal fans knew the deal, they were happy to play along.

But the setbacks were often considerable. In 2001-02 Arsenal were thrashed 4-0 by Blackburn in the fifth round. The next year, Arsenal -- as reigning Premier League champions -- were beaten 3-2 at home by Sunderland in the third round to inflict their fifth defeat in six matches in all competitions. Other managers might have been determined to claim a victory to lift morale, but not Wenger.

Besides, sometimes the reserves provided a boost in this competition anyway. In 2004-05, just after Arsenal's famous unbeaten record was ended by Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Gunners returned to Manchester and a team of kids outplayed a full-strength Manchester City side in a 2-1 victory, scoring two brilliant team goals and providing crucial experience for two youngsters named Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas.

The mid-2000s was an interesting time for Arsenal in this competition. 2005-06 saw a surprise semi-final defeat to newly-promoted Wigan, sealed by Jason Roberts' late goal in extra time. In bizarre scenes, some of the Wigan players were preparing for penalties, unaware that away goals counted after extra time and they'd already sealed their progression.

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