Manchester United have long used the Carling Cup to provide a glimpse of the future. Sometimes it has gone unappreciated. Fifteen years ago at Port Vale, an already established Ryan Giggs was joined in the team by David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Gary and Phil Neville.
One British MP complained in parliament about what he perceived as a weakened side. Sir Alex Ferguson, needless to say, has not forgotten. Recently, Ferguson has been the man with the grievances, annoyed that the current crop of youngsters have been compared unfavourably to his golden generation. The 2-0 win over Tottenham, taking United through to January's semi-finals, was secured by one of the untried, Darron Gibson, who struck twice, and featured five others. The emerging players, subject of some unflattering reviews after last week's defeat to Besiktas, have garnered critical acclaim.
But do they, as Ferguson insists, have a future? Gibson is a case in point. His double was beautifully taken from outside the penalty area, one in the bottom left corner and the other in the top right. "He is the one player at our club who can get a goal from outside the box," said Ferguson, appearing to temporarily forget such clean strikers of a ball as Giggs, Scholes and Wayne Rooney. Yet at 22, the Irishman has started a solitary Premier League game and that, at Hull last season, was effectively a dead rubber.
His only taste of the league this campaign has come as a replacement, introduced twice when United already had a three-goal lead. He is the fifth-choice central midfielder, even before the injured Owen Hargreaves and the versatile Giggs and John O'Shea are factored into the equation. Ritchie de Laet was another to acquit himself well. The 21-year-old Belgian displayed a quiet competence against Aaron Lennon and David Bentley on his second start for the club.
He was commendably honest about the experience, saying: "It's always nerve-wracking for a young player if you come into the dressing room knowing you are playing. "You want to get on to the pitch as quickly as possible, but at the same time you don't want to do anything wrong because it's your big chance. "You have to get through those first few minutes and then see what the game does for you." De Laet, a right-back operating out of position on the left, faces a similar problem to Gibson.
The queue in his preferred position is lengthy, including Gary Neville, O'Shea, Brown and Rafael though the da Silva twins, along with Nani and Ben Foster, were among the unexplained absentees. The issue for the younger players is not a lack of talent but one of fierce competition, exacerbated by the high standards required at Old Trafford and the resources to import alternatives. Gibson's immediate progress may be blocked by Tuesday night's his midfield sidekick. Energetic and effective, Anderson excelled, lending the midfield a power Tottenham did not possess.
In the long term, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda, the two teenage strikers on show, may be competing for one position in the squad. Gabriel Obertan, less impressive than he was the previous week against Besiktas, was signed in the same summer as another right winger, but he is in the shade to Antonio Valencia, another summer recruit, who is only three years his senior. Besides the midfield axis of Anderson and Gibson - "the stars of the night," according to their manager - United owed their victory to the power of Nemanja Vidic.
The first half, when Tottenham possessed a threat, appeared to mark a return to his imperious best for the Serb, whose early-season travails had been overshadowed by Rio Ferdinand's higher-profile errors. If United emerged with greater proof of strength in depth, the same could not be said for Spurs, who faded alarmingly in a subdued second half that Harry Redknapp compared to a friendly. His bench, containing a sprinkling of expensive internationals, has attracted envious glances this season.
Granted a start, however, players such as Robbie Keane, Jermain Jenas and Bentley failed to state their case, with Gareth Bale the most prominent of the stand-ins. Each should be in the squad for Sunday's trip to Everton. At United even the match-winner is unlikely to feature at West Ham on Saturday. In the night's other Carling Cup tie, Stewart Downing scored on his first start for Aston Villa as they beat Portsmouth 4-2.
"I was really pleased with him," said Villa manager Martin O'Neill. "What pleased me most was his ability on the ball. He can manoeuvre it, he can play and he's got a turn of pace when he's fully wound up. Properly fit, he'll be a proper player for us." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org