You can tell a lot about a club's standing by how seriously their fans take the League Cup. The majority if every team's supporters would rather win it that not, certainly, and it's undoubtedly valuable to the big sides as a test of depth and a chance to get some young prospects a run out with the first team. But it's hard to picture Manchester United fans working up much more than a slightly discontented sigh when their team was knocked out of the competition back in October. But for teams like Aston Villa and Norwich City, the League Cup can be the highlight of a season. A backdoor into the Europa League, the chance to book a trip to Wembley, and the joy of playing giant-killer? That's some pretty excellent stuff. Villa's 2009-10 season would have been much more disappointing without their memorable run, even though it ended in defeat (and I still haven't forgiven Phil Dowd, for the record.)
In other words, Villa's quarterfinal match was going to be a big one no matter the opposition. And then of course they had to go and draw Norwich City. Personally, I'm not at all emotionally invested in the "Paul Lambert's Return" story line; he made the decision to come to Villa (and I'm quite delighted that he did) and that's that. I don't have anything against the Canaries and they continue to be a fun story, and I've always been a Chris Hughton fan, but aside from that they're just another Premier League team, and one that currently stands between Villa and a trip to the League Cup semifinals.
Still, I understand why it's a story, and I have little doubt that knocking Aston Villa out of the competition would make a lot of Norwich fans (and the board as well) quite happy. Certainly, some Canaries supporters went a little too far in their post-Lambert-departure trolling, but it isn't as though I don't understand where they're coming from. After all, I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't getting at least some measure of enjoyment out of Sunderland's current predicament. By the same token, I'm sure Lambert would love to go back to Carrow Road and silence some of his critics, justifying his decision in at least some small way.
It's an intriguing story, for sure. But it's not one I'm all that interested in, and I'd guess that I'm not alone among Villa fans in feeling that way. I think this season is going to get better and I think the next few years could be a lot of fun, but for now the League Cup is Villa's best chance to make something memorable and special happen in the near future. And to do so, they have to beat a Norwich City side that, yes, were until quite recently the employers of Paul Lambert, but who more importantly haven't lost any of their previous nine games. Up until October 6th, Norwich was throttled 4-1 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, dropping them to 19th in the table and leaving them without a win from their first 7. Things were looking dire for Norwich, and Hughton was no doubt feeling the pressure.
The Canaries responded two weeks later with a stunning 1-0 upset of Arsenal, and they haven't let up since. Norwich now sits 12th in the table, 9 points clear of the relegation zone and within theoretical striking distance of the top 4. That's two points ahead of last season's pace at the same point, and a bit more competitive in relative terms. That's after a total nightmare of a start is taken into consideration; for nearly two months, Norwich City has been one of the better teams in the Premier League. And it isn't as though this run of form has been due to the Canaries rolling over a bunch of patsies; the current unbeaten streak includes victories over Arsenal, Manchester United and Swansea City, as well as a 1-1 draw against Everton at Goodison Park. This is a legitimately good team, arguably better now than when Paul Lambert left them, and they've been an especially tough customer at home.
When the quarterfinal draw took place, this game looked to be at worst a tossup. But a lot has changed in the time since, and though Aston Villa has improved they haven't done so in nearly as dramatic a fashion as the Canaries. An Aston Villa win would be rightly called an upset, and it's going to take as good an effort as we've seen from this team in some time to get there. It's a result of which they're capable; the Villa defense has been legitimately excellent of late, allowing just one goal in their last four games, and Norwich has managed to succeed somewhat in spite of their back line rather than because of it (though credit must be given to Sebastien Bassong, who is truly excellent.) Villa will need the kind of defensive performance they put in against Arsenal, Reading and Stoke in order to keep the margins close enough to give their anemic attack a chance to do enough, and they'll need whichever attacking players take the Carrow Road pitch to be less wasteful than they've made a habit of being. It's a tough task.
But it's ultimately one that I have faith this team can accomplish. I'm not sure when it happened, but as of late I have a pretty tremendous amount of confidence in this team. It doesn't make much sense on the face of things, admittedly, but there's been a lot to like in recent weeks. So many of the ingredients for success are there, but that final piece of the puzzle (you know, the goals, which are kind of important) have been tough to come by. But they're close, and this would be a pretty fantastic time for them to come. This League Cup is winnable; of the eight teams that remain only Arsenal and Chelsea are truly scary, and they both have plenty of problems of their own at the moment. And if any club could use the boost of a trip to Wembley, it's this one.