The Carling Cup once again provides the perfect showcase for Arsenal's rising stars.
Wenger has got plenty in reserve
The Carling Cup occupies a paradoxical place in Arsenal's affections. They never win it - or at least, not under Arsene Wenger - yet it tends to generate almost unparalleled excitement about the future. Wednesday's 2-1 win over Liverpool was a case-in-point. The 19-year-old Spaniard Fran Merida scored a superlative first goal for the Gunners. The teenage right-back Craig Eastmond made a very accomplished full debut as the holding player in midfield. For the seventh successive season, Wenger's novices qualified for the quarter-finals.
Such occasions validate his management. The personnel change, but the principles remain. Arsenal's ingenues are as committed to out-passing opponents as their elders. An appreciative audience at the Emirates Stadium included the club captain, Cesc Fabregas, dressed in leather jacket and baseball cap. In the more familiar red shirt, adopting the Spaniard's role in midfield, was his heir apparent. Aaron Ramsey may be Fabregas Lite, but he orchestrated proceedings in the manner of the master. The Welshman had the audacity to pass his way out his own penalty area, extricating himself from a tight situation with admirable calm before instigating moves that almost produced goals.
Arsenal earned victory courtesy of a comparative veteran in Nicklas Bendtner, permitting Wenger to issue an early warning that he is unlikely to buy in January. He said: "We have so much quality with our young players that we are not specially out on the market. Fran is 19, Ramsey and Eastmond still only 18. To play in a game at that level, they deserve a lot of credit." If it was a virtual reserve-team match - Wenger made 11 changes and Rafa Benitez a mere nine - the youngsters' uninhibited approach produced a spectacle. "The quality of the game was outstanding, the tactical quality, the speed," enthused Wenger. As with previous exhibitions of technique, however, there was the sense that without Premier League points to prioritise, opponents were able to indulge Arsenal with resorting to negativity.
For Benitez, a fifth defeat in six games offered some encouragement. Yet Arsenal's excellence also illustrated that Liverpool are playing catch-up. While the Spaniard's first XI is enviable, his squad lack depth. While Wenger's focus on developing young players has long been apparent, Benitez only gained control of Liverpool's academy in the summer. If every club aspire for a youth system like Arsenal's, Liverpool at least had the consolation of a goal from a distinctly Wengeresque signing.
Emiliano Insua was recruited at 18 in a swap deal that took the undistinguished Gabriel Paletta to Boca Juniors. A spectacular long-range strike was the Argentine's first for the club and highlighted his improvement. The quality of Benitez's cheaper imports has long been questioned, but the left-back is an exception to the rule. Greater intrigue surrounded the long delayed debut of Alberto Aquilani. The second most expensive in Liverpool's history eventually arrived for the last 14 minutes. One crossfield pass to Philipp Degen was an indication of his ability, while an injury-time overhead kick that struck Philippe Senderos' arm could have brought a penalty.
"He has the quality but he needs to improve his match-fitness," said Benitez. "You can see he can pass the ball in the final third. He can make a big difference." Liverpool's indefatigable stand-in captain Dirk Kuyt added: "Hopefully we will see a lot more from him now. He's a nice lad and it's good for him and us that he has finally played." The Italian's integration should continue with a place on the bench at Fulham tomorrow. The Carling Cup proceeds without Liverpool. To its organisers, it is a sign of the strength of the competition that last eight includes the six top teams in the Premier League.
A glance at the teamsheets provides a different picture. Arsenal, like Chelsea and Manchester United, fielded a glorified second-string team. Perhaps only five clubs set out with a triumph in the secondary cup competition near the top of the agenda: Sunderland, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City. The vagaries of the draw meant that Sunderland faced Villa, losing on penalties, and a depleted Everton team were defeated at White Hart Lane. For the eliminated, it must be all the more galling that Arsenal made their annual, exhilarating progress to the latter stages of the competition without requiring the first team.