Since when is the League Cup an actual prize for Man United and Chelsea? Since this season

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The best way to learn where Manchester United and Chelsea stand this season is by looking at their starting lineups for Wednesday’s fourth round of the Carabao Cup, won 2-1 by United thanks to a Marcus Rashford brace from a pair of set pieces.

This thing is also known as the League Cup, and equally known as the EFL Cup, but it’s a minor competition no matter what you call it. The fashion for big clubs in this cup with many names is to play the kids and reserves until at least the semifinal stage. Because as a big club, you’re not supposed to care about the EFL Cup. It’s a secondary domestic cup so uninteresting that most other European countries that even had one did away with it, or are about to. All winning it gets you is a place in the second qualifying round of the Europa League and 100,000 pounds – a twentieth of what the FA Cup winners get.

There’s no glory in it and no money in it and the European berth to Europa League qualifiers is irrelevant to a big club likely to, at the very least, qualify for the group stage automatically through the league – if it doesn’t reach the Champions League, that is.

And yet, there they were on Wednesday at a half-empty Stamford Bridge, fielding far more of their best players than anyone had expected for their fourth-round bout. United was almost at full strength. Chelsea was diluted a bit, but not hugely. Rather than a B-team, it was a B+ side, or maybe even the A- squad – corrected for grade-inflation.

Marcus Rashford's brace won Wednesday's Carabao/League/EFL Cup tie for Manchester United. But is chasing this competition what it's come to? (Getty Images)
Marcus Rashford's brace won Wednesday's Carabao/League/EFL Cup tie for Manchester United. But is chasing this competition what it's come to? (Getty Images)

Oh, and here’s your obligatory mention that Christian Pulisic – FROM HERSHEY PENNSYLVANIA AND THEREFORE AS AMERICAN AS THE CHOCOLATE – was in the Blues’ starting lineup, although he had a fairly anonymous game opposite the superior Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Because United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would quite like to win the EFL Cup. And Chelsea manager Frank Lampard would quite like to win the EFL Cup. Even if nobody cares very deeply about it, it’s still a prize. And in a transactional, mercenary sport where everyone is disposable and nothing last terribly long, a trophy is a trophy is a trophy. And a trophy indicates success, no matter how small.

Solskjaer needs a trophy because his managership of United has teetered several times already. Just a few months into the season, his side is a longshot to finish in fourth place and qualify for the Champions League. It seems the only thing keeping him in the job is that nobody better is interested or available at present, and that there’s a recognition that the problems for the Red Devils run so deep that cycling in a sixth manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 will accomplish very little. And so winning something would help Solksjaer stay on the right side of the thin ice he treads.

Lampard needs a trophy because his transfer-banned Chelsea is rebuilding with a young core of players. That rebuild went poorly at first and much better of late. But it’s bound to go poorly again at some point, because that’s inherently the nature of rebuilds. And when they do, he too could use a little breathing room, especially when the trigger-happy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich gets into one his firin’ moods.

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The added benefit of the EFL Cup is that the final takes place on March 1, around the time of the year when it becomes apparent which teams won’t likely be winning anything else that season. It’s a big month for sackings and separations “by mutual agreement,” the amicable divorce of management.

So what would likely have been an unremarkable and disjointed jostle between the scrubs, resembling a glorified under-20s game, instead had good pace and bite to it, befitting the stature of the contestants.

The event was low on scoring chances but produced some good goals. United went close first, when Scott McTominay whipped a shot just wide from a low corner driven into his path by Daniel James in the 13th minute.

In the 24th, Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso clumsily brought James down in the box, running through him from behind as the savvy United winger gratefully went down. Rashford converted from the spot.

In the second half, Callum Hudson-Odoi had Chelsea’s best chance to that point but managed to dink Alonso’s low cross wide of the far post. But in the 60th, Michy Batshuayi won a header on Willy Caballero’s goal kick, ran at the United defense and lashed his shot past Sergio Romero from well outside the box for a stupendous equalizer.

Rashford would strike again in the 73rd minute, when he sent his knuckling rocket into the net from a free kick to settle things.

And in any other year, Chelsea would probably have been something bordering on relieved to be out of it, and United slightly irked to have added another game to its already-congested schedule.

But then this isn’t any other year. And the EFL Cup has suddenly become a real prize to some big teams.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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