The match programme cover heralded 'The Next Generation' but virtually all of the youthful effervescence which gives this tournament its name came from the Championship team side who had not scored in five games. The irony of it all was that the Crystal Palace manager, Dougie Freedman, said he had come here to pick Sir Alex Ferguson's brain on how he "has created an environment of hunger and desire at Old Trafford.''
Perhaps it might have helped if the Manchester United manager had shown faith earlier in some of the FA Youth Cup-winning side whose profiles had packed the programme. Ravel Morrison only needed 15 minutes to show why United's coaching staff are so desperate to iron out the rough spots which threaten to destroy his prodigious talent. "It's hard for them, coming in when the team is not doing very well around them," Ferguson reflected of Morrison and Paul Pogba, the 18-year-old also cast as United's next crown jewel.
But there are risks attached to fielding players, like Morrison, with only two substitutes' appearances to their name; preoccupations which do not come with the territory for Freedman, the youthful, 37-year-old whose talk, like his management, is unencumbered. Freedman was the only manager happy to start the game with a teenager in his side because the fast, iridescent, 19-year-old Ivorian Wilfried Zaha already has 59 games behind him. Such are the advantages of belonging to a 12th-placed Championship club which, as Freedman reminded us last night, has been to administration, the brink of relegation and back.
Freedman also spoke reverentially of doing his coaching "A" License on the same course as Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. "It was a good experience to talk to then and find out what it's about. You go on a course hoping to find out thing about things like that," he reflected. But his creed is actually a uncomplicated one. Freedman always remembers the first words Don Howe said to him as a young player at Queen's Park Rangers – "Simplicity is genius" – and his players did not forget this on his biggest night in management.
When it came to the crunch, as United pushed for a goal to save the game, it simply came down to esprit de corps. "In the last 20 minutes, desire shone through, not tactical genius. Just desire," Freedman reflected. "It was a wonderful team that just kept on going."
There was some extraordinary panache from Zaha, too – stop-overs; a glance one way before a pass the other. A good finish was his one missing quality, though that did not remove the sense that he could be one for the future. Twice, he almost punished United for their stasis.
Ferguson regretted that the linesman neglected to spot that Palace's Glenn Murray was marginally offside when he beat Jonny Evans to head home the extra-time winner. But Zaha was clattered heavily to the floor just outside the box after 10 minutes by Fabio da Silva – the last defender – with a challenge which might have seen him sent off if referee Chris Foy had spotted the infringement. Darron Gibson's surreptitious kick at Zaha as he edged around the inside of the area also went undetected.
Whichever way you cut it, United were scruffy – misplaced passes, clumsy challenges, a foul throw. Chris Smalling's assured display was the only positive for Ferguson to take. Dimitar Berbatov, substituted at half time, left the ground with a protective cast around his foot.
The United manager later offered "my apologies to the fans, because this was not a Manchester United performance." Some of his personnel did not look like Manchester United players, either. The overwhelming impression, in the week that Manchester City and Liverpool revealed the strength they hold in reserve, was of a United who were flaccid, slow and drab as the winter's night. Gibson and Mame Diouf looked what they are – 24-year-olds with no future at Old Trafford. Fabio was made to seem a very ordinary defender by Zaha. Federico Macheda is on a marginally higher plane, though United still wait for him to burst through into the superstar who seemed in the making 18 months back.
Only in the presence of Morrison did there seem to be a genuine hope for the future. Morrison does not generally like to be substitute. "Piss take," he tweeted when put there for the reserves. But he accepted it last night and for 15 minutes, the man whom United's coaches rate their best prospect since Giggs, assumed total control, with bright orange boots at last creating some United fluorescence. There was a shot out of nothing from 20 yards which stung the hands of Lewis Price; the anticipation and movement to take a ball into the area from Antonio Valencia, look up and shoot low and hard – forcing Price to stop well with his feet. A delicious back-heeled dink to divert a Gibson pass to Macheda.
But this impression was a fleeting one. Just as Palace's defences seemed set to about to be breached, Darren Ambrose, taking the ball up 35 yards out, unravelled a shot which Ben Amos was utterly powerless to repel and which Neville described as the best away-team goal scored here since Gabriel Batistuta's for Fiorentina 11 years ago.
The lead lasted barely three minutes before Macheda, back in the Palace box, clearly had his shirt pulled by captain Anthony Gardner after he flicked a ball past him and quickly stepped up to drive the penalty past Price. United threw everything at it, after Murray's header had restored the lead, but victory always seemed a forlorn hope. "We have our pride to protect and our history to protect. Every time we walk on the pitch it's important," Ferguson reflected. Palace stole that script, too.
Man of the match Morrison.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee C Foy (Lancashire).
Carling Cup semi-finals
Draw for the Carling Cup semi-finals:
Manchester City v Liverpool
Crystal Palace v Cardiff
Matches to be played weeks beginning 9 and 23 January