Busy with the Women's Champions League during the league cup group stage, both Arsenal and Chelsea reached the semifinals after their first outings of the season in the competition, but do their "free passes" into the last eight further devalue the cup?
How do you solve a problem like the Conti Cup?
The WSL league cup -- known as the Conti Cup for sponsorship reasons -- returned in the midweek for the first of the knockout rounds, cutting the field of eight down to the last four. Unlike previous seasons however, two teams were given a bye to the last eight, meaning the other 22 teams in the competition who entered at the group stage had to battle for just six berths.
It's a move that mimics the men's league cup, where those competing in the Champions League receive a bye into the round of 32; on the women's side, those in the Women's Champions League are allowed to forego the group stage and are automatically in the hat for the quarterfinals. Meaning, had Manchester City successfully navigated the qualification stages of the European club competition this season rather than stumbling at the first hurdle against Real Madrid, it would have been three teams given a direct route into the knockouts, leaving just 21 teams vying for five spots in the quarters.
As previously explained, the group stage that precedes the knockout phase can be clunky and hard to follow, yet it remains a unique selling point for the Conti Cup and provides multiple benefits from more matches for teams who can find games a little hard to come by at some points, to extra gate receipts. Even if score lines can end up lop-sided, Championship (second tier) teams still relish the chance to test themselves against WSL opposition, and a "normal" group stage draw should allow plenty of first vs second tier clashes.
However, it's clearly a cup competition that needs to be reworked. Several years ago, I floated the idea of reverting to a knock-out format but adding in "repechage" rounds to prolong the competition and provide more games. Yet there are undoubtedly other ways of maximising the bang for your Conti buck, or to simple maximise the positives for the teams in the competition.
Bye, bye, bye
Looking at the two quarterfinals that involved the two teams given a bye this season, Spurs put up a good fight against Chelsea but with the Lilywhites still a team in transition, their opposition were able to muster up the all-important moments of quality to get through the tie with a comfortable 3-1 win.
For Aston Villa, who were struggling with a minor injury/availability crisis that saw manager Carla Ward shuffle and juggle her backline about four times during the match, the trip to Arsenal's Borehamwood home was too much for those available (and redeployed). Far from a disaster-class from Villa, it was understandably sloppy and confused at the back allowing Arsenal to turn on the style when the gaps presented themselves, walking away 3-0 victors.
In Leyton, Chelsea's Erin Cuthbert continued to show why she's one of the best players to come out of Scotland in the last decade; 24 hours later, Gunner, Frida Maanum put on a show in Borehamwood. There is little question that in their respective matches, Chelsea and Arsenal were the deserved winners but they were playing in their first Conti Cup games of the season, after their opposition had already played three and four times respectively.
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While Aston Villa were grappling with Sheffield United in the league cup in Scunthorpe at the start of December, Arsenal were hosting Juventus at the Emirates. In late October, the day after Chelsea had humbled Vllaznia, Spurs eased their way to a win over Coventry United in the Conti. It's clear and obvious that the WSL representatives in the Champions League can't be in two places at the same time and it doesn't make any sense to shoehorn them into the Conti Cup group rounds, but maybe it's time for those in European competition to drop out of the league cup entirely?
Should Chelsea (who are away to West Ham in the semifinals) or Arsenal (at home to Manchester City) reach the final, they will do so on the merit of playing just two matches. As we have seen from seasons previous, they are two teams who can beat the rest of the field to lift the trophy but in those seasons, they've at least been required to put in the hard yards to navigate the group stages.
There is a long-standing argument that the league cup is undervalued and under-loved, but are we not further devaluing it by having two teams fast-tracked into the last eight, taking up a full quarter of the available berths? In lieu of real structural changes to the format of the Conti Cup, maybe it's time to look at opening it up by closing it off to those in European competitions.