English football's first major final of the season takes place this weekend, and Kevin Hatchard believes Manchester United's experience and quality will make the difference against underdogs Southampton at Wembley...
"United have far more experience of these showpiece occasions, and I suspect their extra quality and knowhow will be brought to bear in 90 minutes."
Manchester United v Southampton
Sunday February 26, 16:30
Live on Sky Sports 1
Jose Mourinho's first trophy in England was the League Cup, and that 2005 victory over Liverpool prefaced an unprecedented spell of success for Chelsea. As Mourinho mischievously raised a finger to his lips to shush baying Liverpool fans at the Millennium Stadium, not all would have predicted that he would go on to win three Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two more League Cups.
After two chastening exits from Chelsea, Mourinho is now trying to build a legacy at Old Trafford, and the League Cup may once again prove to be the first milestone on a glittering journey. Manchester United come into this Wembley clash on superb form - they have won six of their last seven games in all competitions, and their only defeat in the last 25 outings was an ultimately inconsequential second-leg defeat to Hull City in the semi-finals of this tournament.
The indefatigable, irrepressible Zlatan Ibrahimovic has answered his doubters and critics in spectacular fashion. Some said he couldn't deal with the physicality of English football, but the 35-year-old has made 37 appearances already in this campaign. They said he would be found out after banging in goals against poor defences in France's Ligue 1, but he has scored 24 goals and set up six more. They said he was surly, arrogant and difficult, but he has become a popular leader in the United dressing room.
As Zlatan leads the line, other parts of the United machine are working smoothly. Paul Pogba made a slow start, but is paying off his world-record transfer fee slice by slice. The statistics show he is becoming a very influential player for Mourinho, and he has been involved in 11 goals in all competitions. A once-derided defence has now kept clean sheets in six of the last seven games.
The excellent Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the vastly experienced Michael Carrick could both be missing from the United midfield because of injury, but at time of writing nothing definitive has been confirmed. Club captain Wayne Rooney has confirmed he won't be moving to China, and if Mkhitaryan does miss out, United's record goalscorer could be in line for a start if he overcomes dental pain.
It should never be forgotten how far Southampton have come in a relatively short space of time. In 2009, the club was in administration, its very existence under threat. Saints were in the third tier of English football, but were rescued by Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr. Although Liebherr is sadly no longer with us, his legacy lives on.
Through careful planning, and the astute acquisition of players and coaches, Saints have established themselves back in the Premier League. Having dumped Arsenal and Liverpool out of this competition, Saints have earned themselves a shot at glory, a first major final since an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal 14 years ago. Fans with long memories will recall the FA Cup final of 1976, when second-tier side Saints upset the odds to beat Manchester United 1-0. That remains Southampton's only major trophy.
While their opponents Manchester United are stringing results together, Saints' form in the lead up to this showpiece occasion has been more patchy. They have lost three of their last four matches, and if you look at their games away from St Mary's, they have only won five times on the road all season. That away form includes a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United earlier this season.
This could a be a defining game for Southampton boss Claude Puel. The Frenchman did fine work at Nice (finished 4th last season), Lille (qualified for Champions League), Lyon (Champions League semi-finalists) and Monaco (won Ligue 1), but ending Saints' long wait for a trophy would surely come close to being his greatest triumph. However, he has already blown one big moment this term. Southampton only needed a win or a goalless draw at home to Hapoel Beer Sheva to reach the last 32 of the Europa League, but Saints gave a timid performance soaked in caution, and drew 1-1.
Saints' biggest absentee is centre-back Virgil van Dijk, who has been out for a while with an ankle injury. The club have brought in experienced cover in free agent Martin Caceres, but the former Barcelona and Juventus defender hasn't played for a year.
Opta tell us that Jose Mourinho has never lost a domestic final in England, and he has won all three League Cup finals he has contested. As a squad, Manchester United have far more experience of this kind of game than Southampton do, and I suspect that extra knowhow and quality will be made to count.
Saints don't look as defensively strong as they did earlier in the season, with van Dijk injured and Jose Fonte now at West Ham, and I'm not sure they can contain United's big-game players. United have a deep squad, and look incredibly strong at the moment, so I'm backing them to win in 90 minutes at [1.81].
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
We tend to think of cup finals as tense, tight affairs with few goals, and that has largely been true of this competition's denouement in recent years. Five of the last nine League Cup finals have featured fewer than three goals in the first 90 minutes. Of the four that did see an overs bet land, one saw a last-gasp winner (Birmingham v Arsenal) and another was Swansea's 5-0 demolition of third-tier Bradford City.
United have already beaten Saints 2-0, and Southampton's wins over Liverpool and Arsenal were all based on tight defending and clinical finishing. Both legs against Liverpool were 1-0 wins, and they overcame Arsenal 2-0. Saints would be mad to engage United in a firefight, so maybe it's a worth a look at backing No in the Both Teams To Score market at [1.84]. If you just want to back Under 2.5 Goals, it's trading at [1.73].
I'm not going for anything too surprising here. Opta tell us that Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored four goals in the four domestic cup finals he played for PSG, and he has already netted at Wembley this season in the Community Shield. I'm pleasantly surprised to see him priced at [2.3] on the Sportsbook to score in 90 minutes.