One-hundred-and-seventy days after Manchester City cruised to victory over Arsenal in the 2018 final, the League Cup returns with 68 teams in action as the first round gets under way.
With so much at stake in the promotion and relegation battlegrounds from League Two up to the Premier League, managers up and down the country will be shuffling their selection packs and utilising the full depth of their squads. For a host of youngsters, this could be a rare moment to shine…
Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea)
Could 2018/19 be the breakthrough season for England’s U17 World Cup winners? Morgan Gibbs-White made a Premier League debut at the weekend for Wolves, while Phil Foden looks set to remain part of Pep Guardiola’s plans at Manchester City.
Meanwhile at Chelsea, another new manager and the prospect of a season in the Europa League could open the door for Hudson-Odoi, who was one of the best performers for the Blues in pre-season.
With only Willian, Pedro and Eden Hazard ahead of him in the pecking order, the 17-year-old will be eyeing the League Cup as a stage to showcase his talents following four appearances under Antonio Conte last term. A favourable draw and decent run in the competition for the 2017/18 semi-finalists should give the exciting forward plenty of minutes to make an impression.
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (Aston Villa)
With Villa short of striking options and pitted against League Two opposition in the form of Yeovil, circumstances appear to have fallen kindly for Hepburn-Murphy. The teenager turns 20 later this month and has already played half as many minutes in the Championship this season (29) than he did throughout 2017/18 (59).
A slight but speedy frontman who knows where the back of the net is, Hepburn-Murphy has 24 goals in 35 appearances for Villa’s U23s and helped fire the youngsters to success in the Premier League Cup last term.
Scott Hogan and Keinan Davis have been struggling with groin issues, and Steve Bruce should err on the side of caution and keep Jonathan Kodjia on the bench, so Hepburn-Murphy will sense scope for playing time up front and should get his first senior start at Huish Park.
Albie Morgan (Charlton)
Charlton’s academy has long been a conveyor belt of young talent, in spite of the madness which permeates The Valley. Their latest teenager stepped out from the shadows at the start of the second half against Shrewsbury on Saturday.
Morgan became the first 2000-born player to represent the Addicks at first-team level and took little time to make his mark, playing his part in Karlan Grant’s stoppage-time winner as the hosts triumphed 2-1.
It was the 18-year-old’s first involvement in senior football, but manager Lee Bowyer has had the attacking midfielder on his radar for some time and will be tempted to shuffle his selection in Milton Keynes after a mixed opening to the new League One campaign. As the storm clouds fail to blow over in south London, Bowyer’s job to find the silver linings becomes increasingly difficult – but this latest graduate of the Charlton youth set-up could bring energy and hope to a frustrated club.
Marcus Tavernier (Middlesbrough)
After a summer window that has shorn Tony Pulis of attacking options, Tavernier will be eyeing the League Cup as a springboard to show the manager his full range of capabilities. The wide forward started all three games in last season’s competition under Garry Monk, scoring in a last-16 defeat to Bournemouth, and has featured from the bench in both their opening Championship fixtures this term.
A disappointing U19 European Championship for England was more positive for Tavernier on a personal note: the Leeds-born teenager featured throughout and scored against Ukraine.
With Middlesbrough having already played three times in eight days at the start of the new season, Pulis is certain to rotate against Kevin Nolan’s Notts County – which should open the door for Tavernier to assert his attacking credentials.
Arvin Appiah (Nottingham Forest)
Jody Morris knows a thing or two about young players, having won every competition he was involved in during two years as manager of Chelsea’s U18s. But now operating as Derby’s assistant manager, it was a tricky winger from rivals Nottingham Forest who caught Morris’s eye as he watched England beat Italy in the U17 European Championship this summer.
Appiah scored half a dozen goals for Forest’s U23s as they finished play-off runners-up last season, and finished the campaign as one of the key players for Steve Cooper’s young Lions, who were beaten in the semi-finals on penalties.
Appiah, technically impressive with an ability to ghost past defenders and impact games in the final third, has made steady progress and doesn’t even turn 18 until January. He will hope that Aitor Karanka at least rewards him with a place on the bench in these early rounds.
Josh Maja (Sunderland)
As the Championship trap door opened under Sunderland last May, their demotion to the third tier for the first time in 30 years at least opened a window of opportunity for a talented crop of youngsters at the Stadium of Light.
George Honeyman (born 1994), Lynden Gooch (’95), Bali Mumba (’01) and Josh Maja (’98) all started for Jack Ross’s side on the opening day of the League One season, and Maja has capitalised on successive starts with two goals in two games for the Black Cats.
While instant promotion will be the primary aim this term on Wearside, the locals could do with some cheer and a run in the League Cup might renew some hope at the Stadium of Light. Maja may have played himself into rotation, such has been his early impact up front – particularly as the fixture schedulers have afforded his side a day’s less rest than their League One competitors. A first-round tie against Sheffield Wednesday awaits.
Mallik Wilks (Doncaster, on loan from Leeds)
A powerful left-footed forward who scored 16 goals for Leeds’s U18s two years ago, Wilks doesn’t turn 20 until December, but is starting to realise the potential that earned him an FA Cup debut for the Whites back in January 2017.
A personal tragedy affected his development over loan spells at Accrington Stanley and Grimsby, but, with two goals in two games so far for nearby Doncaster, he looks the part.
Wilks is only on loan until January, and a hot run of form before Christmas could give Marcelo Bielsa food for thought at Elland Road.
Domingos Quina (Watford)
Watford paid £1m for West Ham’s creative midfielder on deadline day, which looks a bargain at first glance – particularly coming less than a fortnight after Quina helped Portugal to the U19 European Championship title.
The Hornets handed the youngster a four-year contract and the No.20 shirt; an indication of their plans to keep him around the first team set-up this season.
Watford have a propensity to rotate and haven’t got beyond the second round since 2013, so the League Cup ought to be the ideal stage for Quina to showcase the dribbling prowess and fleet-footed poise that prompted Slaven Bilic to remark: “If he doesn’t make it, then which player will?”
Tristan Abrahams (Exeter, on loan from Norwich)
Kazaiah Sterling (Tottenham), Tyrese Campbell (Stoke City), Ike Ugbo (Chelsea), Lukas Nmecha (Manchester City): the players who scored more goals in the 2016/17 FA Youth Cup than Abrahams, then of Leyton Orient’s U18s. That the O’s didn’t even make it beyond the third round demonstrates how prolific Abrahams was that season, scoring six goals in three matches.
Orient’s tumultuous 2016/17 campaign at first-team level saw them forced into fielding what amounted to their youth team for a number of matches en route to relegation from the Football League. Those youngsters were forced to grow up much quicker than planned, but the O’s weren’t to benefit hugely – their demise allowed bigger clubs to pluck the best and brightest prospects from east London.
Forward Abrahams went to Norwich, spent last season with their U23s and finished as their leading scorer, netting nine times in all – four in the Premier League Cup. He’s back in League Two on loan at Exeter, and an opening-day strike in victory over Carlisle was a timely reminder that the 19-year-old has what it takes to shine in the professional game.
Kane Wilson (Walsall, on loan from West Brom)
Highly-rated full-back Wilson made his senior debut for West Brom as a 16-year-old at the start of the 2016/17 season, and has made steady if unspectacular progress since then.
Still only just 18, he spent last term under the tutelage of Paul Tisdale at Exeter. He’ll spend the forthcoming campaign down the road from The Hawthorns at Walsall, and a pair of substitute appearances in the opening weeks of the campaign will have offered Saddlers fans a glimpse of the athleticism and maturity in his arsenal.
Korrey Henry (Yeovil)
Operating within one of the tightest budgets in the Football League, Yeovil are typically able to offer a clear and consistent pathway into professional football for younger, often less-heralded prospects. Former West Ham scholar Henry swapped the London Stadium for Huish Park this summer, signing a one-year deal and going straight into their first-team squad.
Able to play as a forward or a central midfielder, he’s robust with a cultured touch, and accounted for a huge percentage of goals scored by the Hammers at U18 level over the last two years. The Glovers took a chance and, not for the first time, they could be handsomely rewarded.
Phil Foden (Manchester City)
The 18-year-old they call ‘Pep’s lad’ at City’s Etihad Campus will be hoping his decision to stick around pays dividends this season after just 329 senior minutes in 2017/18.
But Guardiola knows a thing or two about developing young talent and will surely be pinpointing the domestic cup competitions as an opportunity for Foden to continue his steady rise to prominence.
An impressive Community Shield performance can only have aided the midfielder’s cause, and the likelihood of him starring in the early rounds of the League Cup seems high – particularly after the way his technique and flair stood out against Chelsea at Wembley. Against more mediocre opponents, Foden could cause serious problems.
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