with Nick Pulford
Whichever team triumphs in tomorrow's Carling Cup final, the winning manager will join a select band who have lifted one of English football's three major trophies after being appointed at a relatively senior age.
In the past two decades, only three managers have won an English trophy after taking the reins at the age of 50 or above. Those three were Gerard Houllier, aged 50 when he was appointed at Liverpool and who took them to the FA Cup in 2001 and two League Cup triumphs; George Graham, 53, when he took over at Tottenham and guided them to League Cup victory in 1999; and Ron Atkinson, 52, when he was appointed Aston Villa manager before winning the League Cup in 1994.
Juande Ramos and Avram Grant - the respective managers of tomorrow's finalists, Tottenham and Chelsea - were 53 and 52 respectively when they were appointed last autumn. To put those ages into perspective, even when one of their names is added to the roll call of winning managers, the average age of the last 20 League Cup winning managers at the time of appointment will be only 44.
Graham, who was approaching his 54th birthday when he joined Tottenham, will remain the oldest appointee to win a trophy in the past two decades, with Ramos or Grant going above Atkinson into second place on the golden oldies list. Ramos or Grant will join Houllier as managers who had their first taste of English success in the League Cup. The only other fifty-something appointee whose first trophy was the League Cup was Joe Fagan, who won with Liverpool in 1984 before going on to clinch the league title and the European Cup. Tomorrow's winning manager may take it as an omen that after breaking their duck by winning the League Cup, both Fagan and Houllier went on to more success later the same season.
In the build-up to tomorrow's final much has been made of Ramos's excellent record in cup competitions and, following his two Uefa Cup wins with Sevilla, he took a step towards an unprecedented third straight success in that competition when Tottenham moved into the last 16 on Thursday night.
A little cup magic may be needed tomorrow as Tottenham's form lags well behind Chelsea's, despite promising signs of progress under Ramos. Tottenham have been harder to beat since the Spaniard's arrival, with only five defeats in 20 against Premier League opposition, but four of those defeats were against top-half teams and one was a 2-0 loss at Chelsea six weeks ago.
Grant was more fortunate than Ramos in taking over a top-quality squad with a winning habit, but his record so far stands comparison with the very best. In 34 games for Grant in all competitions, Chelsea have won 24 and lost only two (away to Arsenal and Manchester United - the latter defeat, in Grant's first game, was influenced by the questionable sending-off of John Obi Mikel). Jose Mourinho's first 34 games at Chelsea yielded 26 wins, with two defeats.
League Cup history favours Grant's side, who go into this weekend third in the Premier League and bound for another top-four finish, while Tottenham are down in 11th place. In the Premier League era, eight teams in the top four have played a team outside that group in the final and the higher-placed team has won six times out of eight.
Going back 30 years, when only one of the finalists has been on course for a top-four finish, that team has won 11 times out of 13. And one of the defeats was in 2003 when Liverpool, who eventually finished fifth in the Premier League, beat that season's champions Manchester United.
The only comparable final to this weekend's match where a lower-placed team beat a top-four side was in 1994 when Aston Villa, who finished 10th in the league, beat eventual champions Manchester United.
The head-to-head record is strongly in Chelsea's favour too. In all competitions since the inception of the Premier League, Chelsea have won 23 out of 36 against Tottenham, with only two defeats. Since the big four really began to assert themselves in English football in the 1999/2000 season, Chelsea's win percentage against Tottenham has been 73 per cent, compared with 50 per cent in the seven Premier League seasons before that. Both of Tottenham's wins against Chelsea were at White Hart Lane and there is serious doubt over their effectiveness when taken out of their home comfort zone. This season they rank only 12th in the Premier League on away form and their only two away wins have been against teams that rank in the bottom five on home form.
Chelsea, by contrast, rank top on away form and it is their ability to reproduce their best away from Stamford Bridge that is likely to give them the edge. Under Grant, they have won 11 out of 16 away to Premier League and Champions League teams, and even-money about a Chelsea victory tomorrow looks more than fair.
Wins for Liverpool in their eight league games this season following a Champions League match: 3
London derbies without success for Fulham, who have beaten West Ham only once in nine meetings: 13
Tough down south
Consecutive Premier League defeats south of Birmingham for Sunderland, who visit Portsmouth tonight: 17
No place like home
Home wins out of 11 for Sevilla since Juande Ramos left for Tottenham. They should add to that record: 8
Cardiff have lost only one out of 11 on the road against teams currently outside the top five in the English Championship and rate a good chance at second-bottom Sheffield Wednesday
Home matches without success for Deportivo against teams outside the bottom seven, making Espanyol a solid handicap chance tomorrow night:7
Bielefeld, Dortmund, Wolfsburg, West Ham, Bristol City, Cardiff, Carlisle, Millwall, Valencia, Nancy, Valenciennes, Sevilla, Blackburn, Villarreal, Espanyol
$150 Millwall (HW, Sat), Sevilla (HW, Sat), Nancy (HW, Sat), Valenciennes (HW, Sat), Bristol City (handicap, Sat), Cardiff (handicap, Sat), Espanyol (handicap, Sun). Last week: three winning bets out of five
Birmingham v Arsenal
Fulham v West Ham
Liverpool v Middlesbrough
Newcastle v Manchester Utd
Portsmouth v Sunderland
Wigan v Derby
Blackburn v Bolton
Reading v Aston Villa