By Trevor Haylett
UEFA Champions League representatives Chelsea FC, Manchester United FC and Liverpool FC are all vying for the right to dispute the first English final of the season this week as they play the first legs of their League Cup semi-finals - with a guaranteed UEFA Cup slot on offer for the eventual winners.
Chelsea and United meet at Stamford Bridge in a tie that gives Sir Alex Ferguson the chance to verify his prediction of recent weeks: namely that José Mourinho's side will run into a period of poor form as the pressure of their quest for four trophies begins to impact.
Tonight's first semi-final pits Watford FC of the Championship, England's second tier, against a Liverpool side hoping for a change of fortune after a debilitating run of injuries. Watford have already eliminated top-flight teams Southampton FC and Portsmouth FC and have a fine recent pedigree in cup competitions.
Chelsea, who have a seven-point advantage over Arsenal FC at the top of the Premiership and are eleven points clear of United, have shown no weakness so far in a remarkable campaign which began back in August with a 1-0 home victory over the Old Trafford team.
Mourinho gave debuts to young defenders Steven Watt and Nuno Morais and had only two positions filled by players who could be considered regular starters in Saturday's FA Cup victory against Scunthorpe United FC. The Portuguese is likely to restore many of his senior players on Wednesday as he looks to bring the first of Chelsea's four targets closer into view.
Sir Alex has fielded a youthful eleven in the competition up to now but he may decide this is the time to field his stars. Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand are all likely to figure for United, although Ruud van Nistelrooij and Ryan Giggs remain unavailable through injury.
Eighth crown in sight
Liverpool will also be looking to make the most of home advantage at Anfield tonight. The Merseysiders are bidding to add to their record seven League Cup triumphs and have improved their Premiership form with successive away victories. However, coach Rafael Benítez's options are limited because of a long list of injuries which have recently put midfielder Xabi Alonso and goalkeeper Chris Kirkland on the sidelines for three months.
Veteran defender Mauricio Pellegrino has signed on a six-month deal from Valencia CF and could make his debut against Watford, who are not merely heading north "for a night out". Manager Ray Lewington added: "It's brilliant to have 6,000 fans going up there. Now it's up to us to make it an evening to remember on the pitch as well as off it." Both second legs will take place in a fortnight.
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