MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The oft-derided League Cup is proving to be a saving grace for Manchester United, West Ham and Sunderland amid their wretched campaigns in the Premier League.
The competition that is widely regarded as inferior to the FA Cup has reached the semifinals, with Sunderland hosting United in their first leg on Tuesday and West Ham visiting Manchester City on Wednesday.
While City is going strong in the league, United languishes in seventh place in a weak defense of its title and West Ham and Sunderland occupy the bottom two positions. United and West Ham were also knocked out of the FA Cup over the weekend.
Here are five things to know about this week's League Cup semifinals:
Man United will be happy to be starting the semifinals away from Old Trafford, with the team unbeaten on its travels since the 4-1 loss in the Manchester derby in September. That run contains a 2-1 win at Sunderland in October.
Conversely, David Moyes' side has lost four of its last six home matches in all competitions and the Old Trafford fear factor from the Alex Ferguson era looks to have disappeared.
Speaking after a demoralizing 2-1 loss to Swansea in the FA Cup on Sunday, Moyes couldn't say whether star strikers Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney would be back from injury for the first leg.
What he did say, though, is that style could be sacrificed for substance as United seeks more consistency.
"It doesn't matter what style, whatever you do, you have to find a way of winning," Moyes said.
Last-place Sunderland is relying on its results in cup competitions to salvage something from this season and give its fans something to cheer.
Sunderland has beaten Chelsea and Southampton at home en route to the last four of the League Cup, and advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup by easing past Carlisle on Sunday.
"We are going to become a cup team," Sunderland manager Gus Poyet said with a smile.
Speculation that losing at Etihad Stadium may be the final straw for West Ham manager Sam Allardyce proved to be misguided, with the club's co-chairmen putting on record their support for the coach in an open letter on Monday.
"We know Sam has not lost his ambition or desire and is committed to making West Ham United a great Premier League club," the letter read.
"Despite an extremely difficult draw," it continued, "we are determined to do all we can to get to the (League) Cup final over two legs with Manchester City."
Allardyce will do well to get City back to Upton Park with the semifinal still up for grabs, given he has only 14 available senior players to choose from amid a savage injury crisis that leaves him without a fit center back and a shortage of genuine strikers.
On Sunday, he made nine changes and fielded a number of youth-team players in an unrecognizable starting XI in the FA Cup against second-tier club Nottingham Forest. West Ham was crushed 5-0 in one of the most embarrassing results in its history.
UNSTOPPABLE AT HOME
Another reason Allardyce should be fearful is City's continued excellence at home, where the team has a flawless domestic record after 11 matches in the league and cup.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini rested a number of his top players for the 1-1 draw at second-tier club Blackburn in the FA Cup on Saturday, so the likes of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Joe Hart will return against West Ham.
"A good thing about this club is we have a big squad with a lot of players, so we can rotate without the change changing the way we play," City striker Alvaro Negredo said.
City is still involved in four competitions this season, but hasn't reached the final of the League Cup since winning it in 1976.
HART NO. 1
There's no doubt now — Joe Hart is back as Manchester City's No. 1.
The England goalkeeper was dropped by Pellegrini after a string of errors in the first three months of the season, but regained his place from Costel Pantilimon for the games over the festive period and performed well.
Pantilimon, meanwhile, was at fault for Blackburn's equalizer in the 1-1 draw with City in the FA Cup on Saturday and is destined for another prolonged spell as Hart's back-up.