The most bizarre cup format in existence? It seems we have a winner.
The FA Women’s Continental League Cup, (to be referred to as the Conti Cup from here on in, because even it’s name is too complicated) includes all 24 teams from the the Women’s Championship and the Women’s Super League.
The Logical Group Stage...
The cup begins with a group stage, rather than the more traditional knockout rounds. The group draw is done regionally which, although unusual, is one of the only things that makes sense about the competition.
The reality of women’s football in the Championship, is that not all teams are professional and having copious amounts of money. Therefore, logistically and financially it would be rather difficult, for example, for Sunderland, to travel to Brighton for a midweek game.
The group stage also gives teams in the Championship, and those outside of the 'big 3' in the WSL, a guaranteed three games in the cup, rather than potentially being knocked out in the first round.
It all goes down hill (a long, winding hill that's very difficult to navigate)...
From here is about where the evertrhing goes pear-shaped.
The WSL teams who qualify for the Champions League group stage don’t participate in the group stage and have a bye to the quarter-finals.
This season both Chelsea and Arsenal made it to the UWCL group stage so will not participate in the Conti Cup group stage. Man City were dropped into group B after being knocked out of the second UWCL qualifying round by Real Madrid.
This essentially means that, at least one, but most possibly the three best teams - with the biggest squads and most funding - in the country, likely only have to win 2 games before being in a cup final, where as the rest will have to play at least 5 to get into the same position.
The interests of the ‘big teams’ are very much being prioritised in this format.
Bristol City are the only team outside of Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City to have made the Conti Cup final in the past 5 years - and they were dismantled 6-0 by Chelsea in 2021.
There is a strong likelihood that this could’ve been the case even if the teams in the Champions League were included in the group stage, but the rest of the teams in the cup aren’t exactly being set up for success with the way that it is structured.
Are there any solutions?
Fixture clashes with the Champions League are the main reason for all this palava. But surely it is a solvable issue.
Moving the Conti Cup fixtures so that they don’t clash seems a remarkably simple solution here.
There are a lot of (too many) international windows which do limit where the fixtures could be moved to.
Having said that, it’s only three or four extra games, it still feels like an easy way out has been taken.
The load would become heavier for the UWCL teams but it could be argued that they have the resources (plus their academy players) to put together a squad with enough depth to be used through four competitions.
For example, Chelsea pulled out a bench of 9 full senior internationals for their league fixture away at Everton, and they were even missing a few notable names.
The bigger teams rotating their squads could also inject some excitement and unpredictability, as it could give the other teams the opportunity to give them a good game and potentially cause an upset, which is one of the main draws of cup football.
An upset could then lead to a team outside of ‘the big 3’ having a chance at winning a trophy, which can only be good for growth and would add some unpredictability into the season.
If the fixtures could not be rearranged to avoid a UWCL clash, an option would be to exclude the UWCL teams from participating. This would be fairer for the rest of the teams than the current situation is. However, it shouldn't have to come to that as Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City’s squads should have the capacity to cope with a few more games.
Whatever the solution is, the format needs reviewing. Only three teams have won it since it began in 2011 - it goes without saying by this point that those teams are Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea.
There’s already a large long-term gap between ‘the big 3’ (plus Man United) and the rest of the league, and the the rest of the pyramid - with Man City still managing to qualify for the Champions League last season despite only winning 2 of their first 7 games WSL games last season.
The teams at the top have got the success that they deserve through their long term investment.
It has to be a priority now to level the playing field a bit and give the other teams something to play for as they develop and hopefully invest further. L
It would only scratch the surface, but giving teams a better chance in a competition such as the Conti Cup could be a start.
Full Continental Cup information from the FA: