Exit door looms for Fergie flops
Manchester Utd 1 Crystal Palace 2 (After extra-time)
Alex Ferguson had eulogised about the Carling Cup's propensity for delivering up the future David Beckhams though the challenge of turning up the future crown jewels was revealed in its full enormity last night, as Manchester United were knocked out by a moderate Championship side.
As home League Cup defeats go, it was not quite so humiliating as the loss to York City here in 1995, a season which ended with United winning the Double. But the result was bad; a just outcome for a night on which United laboured heavily, fell behind and left Palace to display almost all of the youthful zest for which this tournament has made its name.
Only in the presence of the Ravel Morrison was there a genuine United hope for the future although United remain desperate to iron out the rough spots which threaten to derail his prodigious talent.
Before he arrived on the field with the talents which every United fan has heard so much about - two good feet, vision and an ability to change direction at speed - United had been labouring in a way which had confirmed all the doubts about who exactly they can expect to drive them on. Darron Gibson and Mame Diouf looked what they are -- 24-year-olds with no future at Old Trafford. Federico Macheda showed glimpses of the potential which had him marked out as a superstar 18 months ago, but the overall effect was as drab as the night.
As hot prospects Morrison and Paul Pogba were kept waiting on the United bench, the senior players did their best to prompt the manager to throw the youngsters on sooner.
Dimitar Berbatov kept his gear stick in neutral if a team-mate had the audacity to fail to pass directly to his feet. He was, unsurprisingly, replaced at half-time, although prior to that his most notable movement consisted of limping.
Gibson, making his first start of the season, achieved the seemingly impossible and made Berbatov seem positively effervescent. To describe Gibson's performance as statuesque would provide a false impression of vitality. The tone of his performance was set within a minute when Palace teenager, 19-year-old Wilfried Zaha, outpaced the Irish midfielder with the most gentle of bursts.
The match programme cover promised "The Next Generation" and featured Paul Scholes' observations on why midfielder Jesse Lingard and defender Zeki Fryers are foremost among them, though Ferguson's faith in them did not stretch to including a teenager in the starting line-up.
Palace had one, though, and what an iridescent presence the 19-year-old Zaha proved to be wide on the right. Dougie Freedman had said he had wanted to pick Ferguson's brain on "the environment of hunger and desire he has created at Old Trafford", but it was only the Palace production which had the appetite for this big stage.
Freedman says Zaha will be a wide player of note if he absorbs more advice and the Ivorian-born player seemed to have been listening. His pace troubled Fabio da Silva in a way which made him look a very ordinary defender and when the United man hobbled off clutching a hamstring after 37 minutes it felt like a small mercy for him.
There was some extraordinary panache from Zaha, too - stepovers; a glance one way before a pass which went the other. A good finish was missing, though that did not remove the sense that Freedman's Palace, not United, looked the side of the future.
United might have been punished for their stasis, too. Zaha was clattered heavily to the floor just outside the box after 10 minutes by Fabio - the last defender - with a challenge which might have seen him sent off if referee Chris Foy had spotted the infringement.
Gibson's surreptitious clip at Zaha as he edged around the inside of the area also went undetected, with United players obstructing Foy's view.
Whichever way you cut it, United's first-half display was scruffy with foul throws, misplaced passes, clumsy challenges. Chris Smalling's assured display was the only positive.
The situation seemed to demand the next generation and gradually Ferguson introduced them, first Fryers for Fabio, then Morrison and finally the 18-year-old Frenchman Pogba, whose agent is pursuing a lucrative move for him so fastidiously that he might actually have played his last match for United.
The impact was almost instantaneous. Antonio Valencia seized on a momentary lack of control by defender Anthony Gardner to pick his pocket and race through on goal, but screwed his shot inches wide of the left post. Then Morrison assumed control, the bright orange boots finally delivering some United fluorescence. A shot came out of nothing from 20 yards which stung the hands of Lewis Price. Then Valencia showed the anticipation and movement to take a ball into the area, look up and shoot low and hard -- forcing Price to stop well with his feet.
The United tide seemed certain to breach the Palace wall when, out of nothing, they displayed some verve of their own. Substitute Darren Ambrose, taking the ball up 40 yards out, took a touch before unravelling a stunning shot which Ben Amos was powerless to repel. It was a goal described by Gary Neville as the greatest he has seen scored against United at Old Trafford in 20 years.
The lead did not last long before Macheda, back in the Palace box, clearly had his shirt pulled by captain Gardner after he flicked a ball past him with his instep. The Italian drove the penalty past Price. But United did not trouble Palace again and when Glenn Murray got ahead of Jonny Evans to head home Ambrose's free-kick, the domestic champions sensed disaster.
A furious Ferguson apologised to his team's supporters and claimed he "didn't know where to start" when analysing the performance of his own team. For several of the current generation who were on show last night, the exit door has never been so close.
- Liverpool will play Manchester City in the Carling Cup semi-final with the ties to be played on January 9/10 and 24/25. Cardiff play Crystal Palace in the other semi-final.