WINNING THE Worthington Cup may not have a prominent place in Arsenal's ambitions for this season, but they will have to squeeze a fourth- round tie into their schedule after what was effectively their reserve side produced a lively performance to defeat Derby at Pride Park last night.
Given that the draw for the next stage of the competition pits them against Chelsea in a repeat of last season's semi-final, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, will face a dilemma over the composition of the team he chooses. Last night he put the matter on hold.
He preferred to enthuse about last night's victory, in which an own goal by Derby's Lee Carsley gave his youthful side a platform to which Nelson Vivas added a second goal. A controlled performance in which Arsenal dominated in midfield and defended superbly, then restricted the home side to Dean Sturridge's reply eight minutes from time.
A delighted Wenger said afterwards: "I was not surprised to win because I believe strongly in these players and I would like to congratulate them. The best answer to the charge of fielding a reserve team is to win and we deserved to. It shows the future for the club is not too bad."
Only Fredrick Ljungberg survived from the Arsenal team that won at Blackburn in the Premiership last Sunday. Patrick Vieira was suspended, Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and Dennis Bergkamp were officially listed as injured; the others were simply given the night off. Despite the unfamiliar names, however, only the French defender, David Grondin, was making his debut.
Even so, the 11 starters cost between them more than pounds 11m and Wenger's contention that the unleashing of frustrated fringe players would be enough to ensure the side was competitive was proved correct.
With Christopher Wreh and Alberto Mendez up front, Luis Boa Morte supporting from left midfield and Ljungberg pushing forward too, they attacked with gusto and were rewarded with a goal after 21 minutes.
Carsley's attempt to head clear when Boa Morte delivered a corner from the right went about as wrong as it could do, with the goalkeeper Mart Poom unable to intervene.
Sturridge went close to scoring an equaliser just before half-time but Derby bore little resemblance to the side that went close to defeating Manchester United last weekend.
Even in the absence of the whole of their formidable back four, Arsenal looked solid and efficient in defence with Matthew Upson and Gilles Grimandi dealing effectively for the most part with Sturridge and Deon Burton. It was a surprise that Smith did not given them more to worry about by sending on Paulo Wanchope earlier than he eventually did.
Then again, he had his own defenders to fret over, more so after they conceded a second goal nine minutes into the second half. Mendez swung in a corner from the left and Vivas, who had not previously scored a senior goal for the club, stole in unmarked to head past Poom.
Wanchope duly appeared, with 22 minutes left, in a triple substitution and it was after his shot had rebounded off the right-hand post that Steve Harper crossed for Sturridge to head home.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Laursen, Prior (Elliott, 68), Schnoor; Delap, Carsley, Powell, Dorigo; Baiano (Harper, 68); Sturridge, Burton (Wanchope, 68). Substitutes not used: Hoult (gk), Carbonari.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Vivas, Grimandi, Upson (Crowe, 77), Grondin; Ljungberg, Garde, Hughes, Wreh (Riza, 89); Boa Morte, Mendez. Substitutes not used: Cole, Lincoln, Taylor.
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).