If the Carling Cup has become the measure of the next generation for Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson then it is the Arsenal manager who will be anticipating the future with the greater pleasure this week. A day after Wenger's fledgling stars had so impressively seen off a strong Newcastle side, Ferguson's found that a middle-of-the-road Championship side simply knew too much.
With a goal in each half from the impressive Maltese international Michael Mifsud, Iain Dowie's Coventry City pulled off a memorable victory to end United's interest in the competition at what for their team is the first hurdle.
"The performance was a shock to us all," Ferguson said. "These are players whose talents we have been trumpeting for a while but I was flabbergasted with the performance."
Ferguson had gambled with a complete change of team after Sunday's win over Chelsea, knocking on the head the notion that Wayne Rooney might be given his third game in eight days after his recovery from injury. He picked nine players aged 21 or younger. These included Nani and Anderson but at the start the only real senior experience was provided by John O'Shea, who captained the side from central midfield on his 129th start since making his debut in this competition in 1999.
The back four included two players, Jonny Evans and Danny Simpson, who were making their senior United debuts and while both gained useful experience on loan with Sunderland last season, protecting United's 100 per cent record of clean sheets at Old Trafford this season proved to be a testing challenge. It was one that proved beyond them, as Coventry emphasised their intention not to be compliant guests at some kindergarten party by going ahead in the 30th minute, much to the raucous delight of the 11,000 fans they had brought with them up the M6.
The first goal tore United's defence apart in classic style. Leon Best spread the play by releasing Michael Doyle wide on the left, the Coventry captain responding with a low driven cross to the opposite post. Mifsud arrived to meet it, the Maltese international firing in his fourth goal of the season, three of them in the Carling Cup after a second-round double against Carlisle United.
Moments later he almost added another, attempting to convert Robbie Simpson's low cross from the right with the inside of his right heel. United were relieved that it bounced away after clipping the foot of a post.
By now the enthusiasm of the home crowd had been dampened somewhat as a United attack, in which the winger, Lee Martin, made probably the most eyecatching contribution, began to look rather less confident.
"There is no mitigation; it was just a bad performance," said Ferguson. "They are not used to cup ties like this one but it is disappointing none the less and the players will need to look at themselves and their own performances."
Whatever the future holds for this crop of developing talent, making a mark in the present was beyond them last night. Ferguson's second-half changes were designed to add nous as much as variety. Frazier Campbell, a rangy forward who had made his debut in the Premiership against Manchester City last month, replaced Martin but more significant was the arrival of Wes Brown to bolster the back line, quickly to be joined there by O'Shea as Michael Carrick took over in midfield.
The changes were effective in as much as the home side quickly looked more coherent all over the field, particularly in the middle, where Carrick's authority commanded respect and gave United the direction going forward they had lacked.
Coventry, for whom centre-back Elliott Ward was outstanding, soon found themselves defending under pressure, Nani cutting in from the left to test Andy Marshall with a rising drive before the goalkeeper blocked from Chris Eagles at close range. It seemed only a matter of time before United produced an equaliser as Marshall pulled off a brilliant save to keep out a Campbell header that was heading for the top corner. Yet just as United were taking the upper hand, Coventry scored again, breaking swiftly on the left with Mifsud again applying the rapier thrust. The Maltese left Pique on his backside on the left and after an exchange of passes with Jay Tabb whipped a vicious diagonal shot beyond the reach of Tomasz Kuszczak to leave United facing an immediate exit.
Mifsud, nicknamed the mosquito after his ability to irritate opposing defenders, could have had a hat-trick, sliding the ball wide after Kuszczak had been able only to parry a free-kick. But two goals was more than sufficient for the Coventry followers, who had not travelled in such large numbers since the 1987 FA Cup final. By the end, a stadium that had been filled with 74,000 fans 10 minutes from the end, was virtually given over to them as United supporters made an early dash for the car parks.
"To come here and score twice against zero does my players a lot of credit," said Ian Dowie, the City manager. "They showed great desire in every position. The keeper made one great save but we limited them to only a few chances really. It was a team that Fergie thought was good enough to beat us and to talk about who was not playing would do a disservice to my players."
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Bardsley (Brown, h-t), Pique, Evans (Carrick, 54), Simpson; Martin (Campbell, h-t), Anderson, O'Shea, Nani; Fangzhuo,Eagles. Substitutes not used:Heaton (gk), Eckersley.
Coventry City (4-1-4-1): Marshall; Osbourne, Ward, Turner, Borrowdale; Hughes; R Simpson, Tabb, Doyle, Mifsud; Best. Substitutes not used: Konstantopoulos (gk), De Zeeuw, Adebola, McNamee, Thornton.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancs).