The group stage of Women’s Continental League Cup is underway, but is the competition helping the game? Is the structure of the cup actually providing any excitement or interest?
The Women’s Continental League Cup kicked off this weekend, structured differently from other cup competitions across the country. Twenty-three teams from the two Women’s Super League divisions compete in groups based on geography: two Northern groups and two Southern groups are drawn but with teams only playing each other once. The top two from each group proceed to the quarter-finals and the competition then follows a more traditional structure.
The League Cup also has a unique points scoring system, with games ending in draws going straight to a penalty shootout at the end of 90 minutes. The team who wins on penalties gain two points whilst the team who loses on penalties receive one.
The group stage was originally abolished three seasons ago in order to encourage competitiveness, but was reinstated in 2017/18, and the penalty shootout possibility seems to discourage attacking football as you have an opportunity to pick up two points even if you draw. Generally the competition only really seems to encourage confusion, unnecessarily so for a sport where you are already vying for the football-watching population’s attention.
In the past the Continental Cup has given us some indication of where newly founded teams will realistically fit within the footballing pyramid as they move through it. Manchester United reached the semi-finals last season, knocking out three top tier teams in the process (two from the group stage, one in the quarter-finals). Generally however, the group stage leads to WSL1 teams having more than enough opportunity to avoid the sort of upsets that knockout games might bring.
The first weekend of the Continental Cup broadly demonstrated this. Manchester City have showed no weaknesses going forward despite missing the injured Georgia Stanway and Ellen White, with Pauline Bremer (who missed the majority of last season with injury herself) continuing a fine scoring run of six goals in three games as they beat Leicester 5-0. This strength in depth has also been shown by title rivals Arsenal who matched their scoreline against London City Lionesses whilst being able to rest key players like Vivienne Miedema.
Reading proved they will be a team to keep an eye on with an impressive 4-0 win against Tottenham, with Fara Williams acting as a creative lynchpin and using her experience to help bring in younger players like Millie Farrow. Chelsea continued a slightly tentative start to the season, beating West Ham 2-0, but they’ll be pleased to see Fran Kirby play her first minutes of the campaign and bring some much needed creativity to the team.
The one surprise was Sheffield United’s comeback against Liverpool, adding to their struggles this season. After losing their last two games against Tottenham and Reading, Liverpool were unable to hold off United’s late comeback, leading twice in the match before losing 3-2. Liverpool are the only WSL1 team in their group so they should still be hopeful of progressing from it.
And therein lies the problem of the Continental Cup in this format. An upset from a lower league team does not bring a sense of excitement, but merely leaves the bigger team with other chances to make up for it. As it stands, the current format is unlikely to bring in many new fans to the women’s game.