Carabao Cup focus: The second round clashes with upset potential

The Carabao Cup is into its second round, with Premier League sides entering the fray.

However, sides from lower down the ladder provide a unique draw as they bid to progress despite their underdog status.

While the FA Cup is more widely renowned for ‘cup magic’, England’s second cup competition has produced plenty of upsets of its own.

We take a look at four ties featuring unfancied sides who could sneak into the next round against the odds.

Harrogate Town vs Blackburn Rovers 

League Two outfit Harrogate Town, who finished 19th in the fourth tier last season, face former Premier League winners Blackburn Rovers, now of the Championship.

The odds are certainly not in Harrogate’s favour. 

However, they overcame higher-tier opposition in the form of League One’s Carlisle United to reach this stage of the Carabao Cup, producing a dogged performance to earn a 1-0 victory.

Blackburn, meanwhile, showed vulnerability in their chaotic 4-3 victory over another fourth-tier side in Walsall.

Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side enjoyed 75% possession on home soil at Ewood Park, completing more passes (834), forward passes (217) and backward passes (148) than any other side in the first round – but still failed to exert the level of control they would have been hoping for.

Away from home in the second leg against a Harrogate outfit that recovered the ball a round-leading 149 times against Carlisle – with centre-back Warren Burrell leading the way amongst players for that metric with 29 – the Championship side could find it more difficult to find their fluency.

It would take a tremendous amount of effort – and another commanding showing from goalkeeper Mark Oxley, who won three of his four aerial duels – but Harrogate could prove an unlikely banana skin on which Blackburn could slip.

Bolton Wanderers vs Middlesbrough 

Bolton Wanderers were good value for the 1-0 win over League Two Barrow that earned them a place in the second round of the Carabao Cup.

Their next test, however, should prove more challenging. The third-tier Trotters have been drawn against Middlesbrough, who enjoyed a superb 2022-23 campaign under Michael Carrick – though their promotion dreams were dashed by Coventry City in the play-off semi-finals.

Boro have endured a difficult start to the 2023-24 season, though, and the 3-2 victory over fellow second-tier side Huddersfield Town remains their only competitive win from their first five games across all competitions.

They did dominate territory against a Terriers side reduced to 10 men after just 13 minutes, attempting (108) and completing (90) more final third passes than any side in the first round, but still conceded a 94th-minute goal to make the closing stages nervy.

Bolton, meanwhile, have started strongly in League One despite a recent dip in results and were positive on the ball in the first round, leading the competition for both crosses (13) and through-balls (nine) completed.

Ian Evatt’s men boast unusual creativity from deep in their back-three system. Against Barrow, wide central defenders Will Forrester and Jack Iredale recorded round-leading totals for progressive runs (12) and final third passes completed (28), respectively, while central midfielder George Thomason also ranked top for through-balls completed (four).

Middlesbrough may find they do not have it all their own way in Bolton.

Birmingham City vs Cardiff City

As an all-Championship tie, Cardiff City’s Carabao Cup second round clash with Birmingham City doesn’t feature an underdog in the traditional sense.

However, Cardiff have claimed just one win from their first four league outings, losing twice, while Birmingham remain unbeaten, racking up three wins and a draw – meaning the pair come into this contest in dramatically different form.

The Welsh side required penalties to overcome League Two outfit Colchester United at home following a 2-2 draw – but there were still plenty of positives to draw from their performance.

Erol Bulut’s men were purposeful in possession, completing more dribbles (29) and winning more attacking duels (46) than any other side in the first round.

Additionally, they ranked top for post-shot xG (4.13), suggesting that only a superb showing from Colchester goalkeeper Owen Goodman prevented the Bluebirds from winning comfortably in normal time.

Cardiff regularly went direct from their own shot-stopper, Jak Alnwick, who completed the most long passes (20) of any player in the first round. Given Birmingham were the team who ranked top for that metric, completing 47 long passes, the clash could take on an end-to-end quality – which would suit the Bluebirds down to the ground. 

Reading vs Ipswich Town

League One Reading produced one of the standout results of the Carabao Cup’s first round, beating Championship side Millwall 4-0 away from home.

While their goalscoring exploits naturally catch the eye, their big win was built on a foundation of rugged, committed defending.

Faced with higher-tier opposition, the Royals caught the Lions sleeping to open the scoring inside the first minute and defended that lead aggressively – they attempted, and succeeded, with more defensive actions (158 of 232) and defensive duels (72 of 111) than any other team in the first round.

Reading’s reward is a home tie with another Championship opponent in Ipswich Town – who are enjoying a strong start to the season after being promoted last term. 

Ipswich pressed high in their 2-0 win over Bristol Rovers to reach this stage, with central midfielder Jack Taylor scoring the opener and his partner Lee Evans recovering the ball a joint-round high 11 times in the opposition half.

However, the Royals have proved they have all the tools to deal with being penned back by an aggressive opponent – they could well repeat the feat.

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