The EFL Cup draw has paired us with Wolves, three days after we play them at St James Park in the Championship and four days before the trip to Aston Villa. It’s decision time for Rafa Benitez: promotion or treat the EFL Cup with contempt.
The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. There’s no reason why we can’t win promotion as well as having good cup runs in both domestic competitions. There’s no guarantee of it either.
That’s really the issue. Priorities. Rafa can use cup ties to give players much-needed game time, as he did against Cheltenham with Darlow, Gamez and Mitrovic but it almost backfired with the latter when he left the field with concussion.
Things went from bad to worse when his substitute Dwight Gayle, was replaced for the same reason. Both should recover before Saturday’s match against Brighton. Even Ayoze Perez ended up with his head swathed in bandages.
All this after Rolando Aarons left with a more serious foot injury. A win, yes, but at what cost? We still don’t know how long the youngster is out for.
Tuesday’s team showed seven changes to the one which beat Bristol City at the weekend. All well and good but by the time the final whistle blew, 10 of the 14 used at Ashton Gate, had played against Cheltenham. So much for rotation.
Losing in cup-ties isn’t nice and despite being used to it, never gets any more pleasant. And we know Rafa loves a cup run, he’s been on enough in his time but promotion is the only aim this season.
Yes, I want to win the Championship but returning to the Premier League via a deflection off the referee’s backside in the last minute of extra-time in the play-off final will also achieve that aim. And make me as happy.
Quite simply, I don’t care how we get back to the Premier League, just so long as we stay there.
For that reason, I don’t like the League Cup. It’s a distraction and so is the FA Cup when it comes around in January.
It isn’t just the games, it’s the three days preparation and one day rest cup ties consume. That time would be better spent focussing on the Championship and building understandings between players. With more signings still to come this summer, that time is precious.
We’ve recovered from opening the season with two defeats, now we need to be marching onward to the top of the table not thinking of possible glory, of a trip to Anfield, Old Trafford or the Emirates if we beat Wolves. If we land that tie, what does Rafa do? Field a full XI, one he believes can win the game and risk a serious injury which might derail the promotion bid?
Or risk confidence, which could take a pummelling if we get thrashed? There’s no easy answer to that. Well, there is but I’m not sure Rafa wants to hear it.
So yes, Rafa, it was good to win on Tuesday but no, if we lose to Wolves in the next round, I’m not going to be upset.