The girls’s league cup — referred to as the Continental or Conti Cup — returned this week to play out 4 postponed fixtures from the final spherical of the group stage, and there was little room for delay as a result of the quarterfinals are as a consequence of happen subsequent Wednesday/Thursday with solely half of the final eight have been determined. It was the kind of chaos we have come to count on from the customarily hectic cup competitors, which started on Oct. 1 and is contested between all 24 groups within the FA Girls’s Tremendous League and Girls’s Championship.
Whereas we are able to muse concerning the “magic of the [FA] cup,” there’s one thing bizarre concerning the league cup — a contest that spends most of its seasonal run off of the radar, confined to wintry midweek anonymity — but there’s something joyous concerning the haze of the Conti, even when attendances vary from 4,200 (Southampton vs. Studying) to 104 (Sheffield United vs. Aston Villa) throughout the early rounds.
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Forward of the knockouts, let ESPN introduce you to England’s forgotten cup competitors, from its frequent finalists to minimal crowds which have been recognized to dribble down into double figures.
A novel promoting level?
There’s a collective look of confusion shared by these not accustomed to the ladies’s League Cup — referred to as the Conti[nental] Cup for sponsorship causes — if you start to clarify the competitors with “it starts in the group stage…”
To be honest, this is not the response many would count on after admitting they did not even realise there was a girls’s League Cup in England. The group stage itself might present a sellable level of distinction for the competitors, but it surely’s a clunky drawn-out course of that has any variety of groups in any variety of teams. (Apologies for being obscure, however due to the problems, the FA has repeatedly tried to retool and rework the group stage. Some seasons have seen three teams, whereas others there have been six.)
The teams themselves are hardly ever evenly divided, too. Initially, teams had been meant to be damaged down by areas, however the traditionally southern-heavy nature of the highest two skilled leagues has made for some wonky teams, together with one version the place Durham had been paired with Studying, which is a few 270 miles away. (In case you’re English, that is a protracted journey.)
Even with smaller teams — like in 2020-21, which had some as small as three groups — there’s nonetheless the necessity to slot in further video games earlier than the flip of the yr when the cup competitors enters its knockout section. This has meant that through the years, a lot of the video games have been compelled into midweek slots, thus heightening the necessity for extra localized and regional matchups.
Whereas this method has helped golf equipment and their followers keep considerably near dwelling, the standard of matches has unwittingly contributed to poor attendances and protection. Worse nonetheless, the ultimate was given an unappealing midweek night slot, with few golf equipment eager to host a ultimate that has hardly ever impressed the lots to attend.
Extra taking part in time
Whereas followers and — let’s be sincere — the media have typically struggled to be excited by the Conti Cup group stage, it has been welcomed by many gamers who’re at all times itching for extra taking part in time. As we have seen this season, groups like Manchester United have used the league cup to offer minutes to bench and peripheral gamers, and it does stay a very good competitors by way of significant time on the pitch.
Nevertheless, there are points with the midweek fixtures for these from the second tier who steadiness soccer with research or work, as we noticed a couple of years in the past when Sheffield United had been with out a number of gamers who could not get the break day work. Certainly, there are a couple of tales of the same nature every season, with some gamers barely making kick-off after driving on to a recreation after a shift at work or some lacking the coach altogether as a consequence of a too lengthy away journey.
But regardless of the problems confronted by Championship sides, gamers from the second tier normally look ahead to their league cup clashes in opposition to WSL opposition, seeing them as a very good probability to check themselves. The format is once more a difficulty: upsets are typically uncommon given the construction of the group stage, whereas an remoted shock win for a second-tier crew normally comes with out the reward of development.
Problems and quirks
With so most of the matches slotted in midweek gaps, the FA are inclined to pair the league cup group schedule with the UEFA Girls’s Champions League so everybody’s in motion. It meant that when Arsenal had been internet hosting Juventus on the Emirates, Liverpool had been clashing with Manchester Metropolis within the Conti. Or when Chelsea had been doing their victory lap after scoring eight occasions in opposition to Vllaznia, it was the start of a penalty shoot-out between Durham and Manchester United. (It additionally signifies that for the primary season in its historical past, the cup has given a bye to these in European competitions, with Arsenal and Chelsea not even becoming a member of the Conti Cup till this month’s quarterfinal stage.)
Ah sure, the Conti Cup group stage penalty shoot-outs…
The forms of the Conti Cup has additionally led to group ties with nothing at stake which might be being performed throughout the knockout section. I used to be there, it was a wierd and pointless match, let’s transfer on. But there’s something nearly charming concerning the want for penalties, with the primary 4 matches in Group A this season going to identify kicks. Or the endless shoot-out between London Metropolis Lionesses and West Ham in October that noticed a complete of 26 penalties taken, with the Hammers ultimately profitable 10-9.
They’re moments that talk to the bizarre and cumbersome nature of the under-loved cup competitors, however that additionally serves to focus on what makes it so particular and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, as an under-served competitors with traditionally over-cluttered match days and little in the best way of protection even from the leagues themselves, the Conti Cup has typically gotten misplaced within the shuffle.
Though the FA has elevated its protection with the cup with choose video games even airing (at no cost) on the FA Participant, it is nonetheless a contest that lacks detailed stats and knowledge: the soccer affiliation has reasoned that the cash spent on paying for Opta to cowl it might, and does, go to extra necessary locations.
For all of the expanded and laborious nature of the Conti Cup, it’s a predictable competitors that’s all too oft squeezed in round extra fascinating occasions. Returning in the course of subsequent week for the quarterfinals, the semifinals will probably be performed a fortnight later and the ultimate slated for the primary weekend of March. What is good is that that is the fifth yr the cup ultimate will probably be on a weekend.
Now in its twelfth season, the Conti Cup has solely ever had three winners, they usually’re the identical three who’ve gained every bit of home silverware accessible to WSL groups since (however not together with) 2014. Certainly, had it not being for Liverpool’s WSL titles in 2013 and 2014, you would need to return to the 2011-12 FA Cup ultimate, when Birmingham Metropolis bested Chelsea on penalties, to discover a time when Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester Metropolis weren’t the victors.
Someway worse nonetheless, earlier than the 2019-20 ultimate, solely two groups had gained the Conti with Chelsea by no means having made the ultimate earlier than their first triumph. Throughout the 11 finals thus far, solely six groups have ever featured, the three victors in addition to Bristol Metropolis (2020-21), Birmingham Metropolis (2011, 2012, 2016) and Lincoln Metropolis [who became Notts County] (2013, 2015).
With over 80% of the event full, the query is, as soon as once more, if the Conti Cup has outstayed its welcome or if it wants one other rejig to maximise its potential?
The Conti Cup will probably be again on Wednesday for the primary three quarterfinals.