The Carling Cup's powers of illusion persist. The competition is perceived to be one the smaller clubs can win yet it is the elites, despite their policy of putting out weakened sides, who continue to dominate. No team from outside the top flight has secured the trophy since 1991, with the past six winners being participants in the current Champions League campaign. This year was meant to be different but after last night's results, a sense of deja vu is taking over.
Four of yesterday's five fourth-round ties contained non-Premier League participants, with each of them harbouring realistic ambitions of progressing into the quarter-finals. That only one of them made it was a blow for the romantics.The most intriguing of the five League clubs that played last night were undoubtedly Brentford and Northampton, who between them accounted for Merseyside's big two in the previous round. United by the shocks they caused last month, the pair's eventual exits from the competition proved contrasting.
Brentford were two minutes away from eliminating Birmingham at St Andrew's having deservedly taken the lead through Sam Wood's volley on 68 minutes. But the League One club retreated further and further back as the clock counted down and eventually paid for their caution in second-half stoppage time when Kevin Phillips equalised from close range. That Andy Scott's team were then beaten 4-3 on penalties would have provided Everton supporters with much schadenfreude given that was the manner by which Brentford beat them in the third round.
"I am very proud but obviously disappointed," said Scott, reflecting on his team's failure to make the League Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history. "The character we showed since the Everton game has carried us through and we have been up against it. The players are exhausted."
For Northampton Town there was no such heroics against Ipswich, and certainly no memories for them to take from Portman Road that even begin to compare with those that still linger following that famous win at Liverpool 35 days ago.
Ian Sampson's side took the lead through Liam Davis's long-range drive on 16 minutes but were ultimately beaten with little fuss as the hosts ran out 3-1 winners.
"We've got bigger fish to fry now," said Sampson in acknowledgement of how Northampton's form has nose-dived since they triumphed at Anfield; the side has lost their past five league matches and sit second bottom in League Two. "If they keep believing in each other we will be OK and I am confident that we can get out of the predicament we are in."
For Ipswich the win provided respite from their patchy league form – Roy Keane's men have lost their past three Championship fixtures – and the knowledge that, barring a victory for Burnley at Aston Villa tonight, they will be the only League side featured in Saturday's quarter-final draw. "We 're hopeful of a home tie," said Keane, who remarkably never won the League Cup as a player.
Ipswich would have perhaps expected to be have been joined in the draw by Leicester, but Sven-Goran Erikkson's side were comprehensively beaten 4-1 by West Bromwich Albion at the Walkers Stadium, the Baggies extending their unbeaten run in all competitions to eight matches.
Roberto Di Matteo, the West Brom manager, did, however, acknowledge the good fortune his side received in victory, specifically the manner in which Somen Tchoyi put them 2-1 up. The Cameroon midfielder, as he had done to equalise against Manchester United earlier in the month, capitalised on a goalkeeping error, with Conrad Logan the man who was this time guilty of dropping a straightforward cross.
The other League club to exit the Carling Cup last night were Swansea, who lost 2-0 at Wigan. At Old Trafford United beat Wolves 3-2 thanks to another late strike from Javier Hernández, and they are now favourites to win the competition for a third successive year.
Out to stop them will undoubtedly be Arsenal, who are likely to be a shadow of their usual selves away to Newcastle tonight but should still be strong enough to prove a stern test for Chris Hughton's side. The other all-Premier League tie is West Ham verses Stoke, leaving Burnley as the only cause for attention among those keen to see a League team repeat what Sheffield Wednesday did – against Manchester United – 19 years ago. If recent history and results are anything to go by, they may be waiting for some time.
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.