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League Cup an important step in sports road back from Covid-19

General view of the big television screens thanking the supporters inside the stadium during the English FA Cup semifinal soccer match between Leicester City and Southampton at Wembley Stadium. Photo: Richard Heathcote/PA Wire/dpa
General view of the big television screens thanking the supporters inside the stadium during the English FA Cup semifinal soccer match between Leicester City and Southampton at Wembley Stadium. Photo: Richard Heathcote/PA Wire/dpa

The League Cup may have its detractors with its long-term viability a recurring debate, but Sunday’s final could be one of the most significant matches of the season.

It is not only the fact that the Wembley clash between Manchester City and Tottenham throws up plenty of questions at critical points in both clubs’ seasons that will draw eyes to the contest.

Nor is it the fact that we will be deprived of yet another chapter in the long-running rivalry between the two managers after Jose Mourinho was sacked by Spurs just six days out from the final.

But the fixture will also be a key staging post in the sport’s return to normality in England after a year of lockdown restrictions.

With a crowd of up to 8,000 anticipated – the largest for a sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic began and, crucially, including supporters from both clubs – events will be closely monitored by many within the game and beyond.

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The absence of fans has made for an unusual season and, many would feel, robbed the sport of its soul.

Having supporters in the ground making a noise, even if they will number just a fraction of the stadium’s 90,000 capacity, should make for an uplifting event. If successful, the implications for the wider game would be notable.

Someone who will not be in attendance is Mourinho, who lost his job in the week leading up to Tottenham’s first domestic final since 2015.

The 58-year-old paid the price for a disappointing second half of the season where Spurs sank from the top of the Premier League to outside the European places with little hope of Champions League qualification.

That became something of a moot point given Tottenham’s involvement in the controversial European Super League should the breakaway tournament materialise, but it is understood that played no part in Mourinho’s exit.

Those present will get to see whether Pep Guardiola’s City can recover from their FA Cup exit last week, and the dashing of their quadruple hopes, to pick up their first trophy in what could still be a glorious season.

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No competition has been kinder to Guardiola since he arrived at City, having won it in each of the past three seasons. The club itself also has something of a stranglehold on the trophy, having picked it up in 2014 and 2016.

Victory would see City equal Liverpool’s record of eight overall triumphs and match the Merseysiders’ feat of four successive wins from 1981-84.

Form this season is on City’s side. Having built up a commanding lead in the Premier League and reached the latter stages of three knockout events, Guardiola’s side have been almost peerless.

Much could depend, however, on his selection. Having rotated last weekend for an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea that came three days after a memorable Champions League win over Borussia Dortmund, this time he has the same conundrum in reverse.

The final comes three days before a European semi-final at Paris St Germain and Guardiola will undoubtedly want his prime resources available for that key date.

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Losing Kevin De Bruyne to injury last weekend was a huge blow and the potential for further problems is likely to create some selection dilemmas.

There is a feeling, however, that City can cope far better without De Bruyne than Spurs can without Harry Kane. Spurs’ inspirational striker is so crucial to their game his latest injury will be of deep concern.

With no continuation of the Mourinho and Guardiola rivalry, two key men potentially missing for either side on the pitch and one of the biggest sporting crowds in over a year it should all make for an intriguing occasion.

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