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A deep cup run is always a wonderful thing, but for a team looking that's just endured something of a nightmare season and desperate for signs of growth under a new manager, it can be a real blessing. Given Aston Villa's luck these past few years then, it's little surprise that the third round draw was so unkind; early round game or no, Manchester City is about as tough an opponent as you'll find and having to play them at the Etihad makes things all the more difficult.
Some Villa fans wouldn't be all that disappointed with an early exit, as it would mean less fixture congestion and the ability to focus more directly on the league. It's not a point of view with which I agree, but it's reasonable enough and I'm not really inclined to try to convince them otherwise. Another (significantly smaller, to be fair) segment of Villa fans wouldn't mind an early exit because they don't view the League Cup as a competition worth caring about, and to me that seems like complete and total insanity. The League Cup isn't the FA Cup in terms of prestige, but it's still a knockout competition that ends with the winner being awarded a trophy and a trip to the Europa League. Plus, cup runs are a blast; why anyone would want to be deprived of that kind of fun simply because it's not quite as well-regarded a competition as another is perplexing.
The League Cup can also be handy as something of a proving ground for young players that need to be further integrated into the squad, and goodness knows that Aston Villa have plenty of those; realistically though, if you're playing a team as good as Manchester City, putting anything but your strongest lineup on the pitch is going to be viewed as punting. That makes it a bit of a tricky situation for Paul Lambert, because that perception has to be weighed against fatigue, the need to evaluate both newcomers and out-of-favor veterans alike, and the desire to progress to the next round of the tournament. No matter which decision is made, it's going to be second guessed by someone, and though it's unlikely Lambert gives much thought to such things the proverbial ecosystem is still quite fragile. Let's not forget, things were actually going pretty well for Gerard Houllier when he put a weak team on the pitch against City in the 2011 FA Cup 5th Round; the 3-0 loss likely ruined any hopes of the fans coming around to support him.
Roberto Mancini doesn't have the same kind of dilemmas at Manchester City. With a bench full of players that could likely qualify for the Champions League, there's no team City could put on the pitch that wouldn't be favored against Aston Villa; considering that neither started against Arsenal over the weekend, that team is likely to include one or both of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli. City is a team built to seriously compete across multiple competitions, and though the League Cup was not likely at the top of Mancini's list as he set about compiling his squad, the result is the same; the quality of depth at their disposal means that any side they field will be weak only in a very relative sense. For Villa to advance past them would be quite an accomplishment.
Still, that's a long way from being a foregone conclusion. The League Cup is almost certainly the lowest of City's priorities, and wide though the gap in talent between the two sides may be the enthusiasm gap may well be just as wide in the other direction. With the pecking order at Aston Villa still very much in question (especially given what looks to be a lengthy spell out of action for Stephen Ireland) this game will offer a chance for some players to prove their worth. And though it may be tough to remember following a pretty horrendous performance against Southampton over the weekend, this is a Villa team that put together two very good games in a row earlier this month. An upset certainly isn't the most likely outcome (it wouldn't really be an upset in that case) but it's not as though it would take a miracle.
So, here's hoping. I'd be lying if I said I was especially confident, but I'm not willing to chalk this one up as a defeat just yet. City haven't exactly set the league on fire to this point, and seeing as how these games don't go to extra time and/or penalties until the first replay a draw would have to be seen as a positive result. And if worst comes to worst and City thrashes Villa as expected, is that really going to change the way anyone feels about anything? This is one of those classic high-upside/minimal downside kind of situations. Seems like we're due at least a little bit of good luck sometime, no?