Now, this was not any old game, this was the Carabao Cup (no, I have no idea what a carabao is, maybe an animal, maybe a car, perhaps a soft drink). Even more importantly, I’ll have you know this was a semifinal, so a place in the grand final was on the line.
You may wonder exactly how such a vital game, at such a vital stage of a prestigious tournament, could possibly produce such a lopsided score. I mean, nine goals? Which will no doubt lead to you wondering about Burton Albion. Who on earth are they?
I can help there. Burton is a small town near where I spent some of my early years -- population now around 60,000 (depending on where you draw the boundaries). Back in those distant boyhood days I knew it only as a dull place --- it was celebrated only for its breweries and its beer. Certainly not for soccer.
Burton Albion (inevitably “The Brewers”) was formed in 1950 and spent its first 60 years in minor leagues --eventually gaining access to the Football League’s 4th division (called League 2) in 2009. Promotion to League 1 came in 2015, then on to the Championship (next stop the Premier League!). The success was not continued and the Brewers slipped down to League 1 (3rd division) where they are currently in 9th place.
That’s Burton Albion. They arrived -- certainly unexpectedly -- at the Carabao semifinal by eliminating Shrewsbury, Aston Villa, Burnley, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough. Which is pretty impressive. Only Shrewsbury plays in League 1; Aston Villa, Notts Forest and Middlesbrough are in the Championship (one league up), while Burnley is a Premier League team.
Yet .. Burton traveled to Manchester and got utterly humiliated. You can be sure, when you see a winning margin as large as nine goals, that it could have been more. Indeed it could.
For a start, one might want to question the Manchester City team selection. Six days earlier, City had played Liverpool in an absolutely crucial game. Of the 11 starters in that must-win game, only two (Leroy Sane and David Silva) started against Burton. So, definitely a ManCity “B” team. Leaving the strong suspicion that Pep Guardiola does not take the Carabao Cup too seriously. Or possibly that he doesn’t think much of Burton Albion.
It is possible -- though, I think not likely -- that neither of those suspicions is true. But does any blame lie with Guardiola? Winning the Carabao is not a big deal for him (he won it last year, anyway).
There are those who insist that the Carabao is nothing more than a marketing extravaganza, a smaller, less important, less interesting (less everything really) version of the venerable FA Cup. Premier League teams -- especially those (like Burnley) that have relegation worries, or those (like Man City, and Tottenham and Chelsea, the other semifinalists) that are very much involved in the fight to win the EPL -- do not necessarily find the extra Carabao games welcome.
Except that -- in this day of super-marketed, super-financed, (read “filthy rich” for all of that) soccer, the top EPL teams with their talent-packed rosters are all capable of putting out powerful “B” teams that can win. So why shouldn’t Guardiola choose to rest Aguero, Laporte, Kompany, Danilo, Sterling, Stones, Fernandinho et al ?
Maybe because sending out a “B” team shows a lack of respect for one’s opponents? Guardiola evidently felt a bit guilty about that -- announcing after the game that his team had shown respect for Burton ... by beating them so heavily. His reasoning: that his team had never relaxed against Burton (or taken pity on them?) -- but had kept up their onslaught for 90 minutes. So the lack of respect shown by fielding a “B” team is canceled out by having them score nine goals.
I mentioned earlier that the scoreline probably broke some records. I now see that it did at least equal one -- Guardiola’s previous biggest win was also 9-0 -- in Spain, with Barcelona against L'Hospitalet.
Significantly, that was a win in the Spanish Cup competition, the Copa del Rey. Not a coincidence, for cup competitions insist that pitting big teams against small teams -- with the possibility of a David-beats-Goliath upset -- is what makes them special. Indeed, the “glamour of the cup,” a much used phrase, depends on it.
They have a point, of course they do. Or they did, once upon a time. Big money has upset things. The skill gap between big and small teams (read rich and poor teams) is now embarrassingly large. Add in the rich teams’ ability to put out strong “B” teams -- which means making a decision that they will be good enough -- and the David vs. Goliath factor looks more mythical than real.
The idea of a knockout tournament for all-comers, climaxing in a grand final remains attractive. England has one, the oldest of all soccer contests, dating back to 1872: the FA Cup. It hardly needs another one. That the Carabao Cup is one cup competition too many seems pretty clear.
But it is not just the Carabao that can come up with horrendous mis-matches like Man City vs Burton Albion. They can happen in the FA Cup too. And every time they do happen, they devalue the very idea of an open cup. A 9-0 mauling is, for most fans, painful to watch.
Equally painful are some of the coaches’ postgame comments. A couple of years ago Guardiola had a rush of blood to his head and admitted that the Carabao might well be “a waste of energy.”
This time he tried the diplomatic approach: “It is not easy to play this type of game against a lower team.” Which simply flew in the face of what we’d been watching. This was as easy as it comes for Man City.
No doubt Burton, by refusing to play a stolidly defensive game, simplified matters for Man City. So should Burton be complimented for committing suicide?
Losing coach Nigel Clough did sum things up truthfully: “We didn't expect anything less with the gulf between the two teams. We thought it could have been more. We didn't do too much wrong. With two or three of the goals we could have done more but we didn't do too badly ... they [the Man City fans] were shouting ‘we want 10' and we stopped them, that's a positive for us.”
Just to complete The Brewers’ anguish there is now the prospect of the meaningless return game at Burton. Meaningless as far as the tournament goes, that is. It does represent a pay day Burton -- which is important, no? Man City, to continue showing respect, should field its strongest 11. The Burton fans, who will no doubt pack the 6,900-seat stadium, will be paying to see the stars, won’t they? But they won’t want to see another 9-0, now will they?
In short, the game is likely to take on the atmosphere of a friendly. I don’t find that too objectionable, but it does rather mock the notion that the Carabao Cup should be taken seriously.
Really, the only thing to be learned from a massive mismatch like the Man City-Burton game is that a lot more should be done to ensure that such games do not crop up. The cup formation is the chief culprit. The growth of super-rich clubs with their talent-laden benches has seriously undermined the lovely, but naive idea of an everyone-plays-everyone format.
The one cup tournament that works brilliantly -- the World Cup -- does so largely because the entire sport, worldwide, is willing to grant it priority over all other competitions. Even so, it does feature hapless mismatches. And FIFA, far from seeking to avoid them, is making them more likely by enlarging the tournament.
As for cup tournaments at the club level, the idea of abolishing them suggests itself, but does not look like a workable idea. If they are here to stay, they need to adjust to the modern soccer world. That means, basically, finding a way to avoid embarrassing mismatches, perhaps of arranging things so that money does not count quite as powerfully as it does elsewhere in the sport.
That sounds like creating another fantasy version of the sport. Well, so what? That David vs. Goliath dream at the heart of the cup experience was always fantasy. When was the last time David won the FA Cup? Or the World Cup?