Arsène Wenger vowed to back the burgeoning talent of his Carling Cup side all the way to the final after watching an XI containing four teenagers stroll into the last eight last night. This was all too easy for Arsenal, who might at least have expected that a team with an average age of 21-and-a-half to be given a serious examination of character by Sheffield United but instead found their Championship opponents ultimately not much better than willing accomplices.
Compared with the snarling aggression Wenger's teams always used to face when Neil Warnock was in charge, United were almost ineffectual. Eduardo da Silva, the £7.5m summer signing from Dynamo Zagreb, took advantage by adding his first domestic goals to the two he has scored in the Champions League, Denilson scoring Arsenal's third. A disgruntled United fan who breached security to throw his scarf at Bryan Robson offered an apt expression of what the home crowd thought.
"You could see that our confidence is high whereas maybe Sheffield's is not so good at the moment," Wenger said. "They fought hard in the first half but after the second goal the belief seemed to go a bit for them. But it was a good performance technically from us.
"I will try to stick with these players, although when you get to the semi-final over two legs it is difficult to predict who will be available, particularly if you have injuries."
Wenger was determined to brush aside the controversy surrounding Gilberto Silva, who was denied the captaincy last night despite being by far the most experienced player on duty. Apparently, the 31-year-old Brazilian World Cup winner was unhappy at being asked originally to play in the back four – he was in central midfield, in the event – and even though Wenger insisted "there is no problem with Gilberto" it was difficult not to see his decision to give the armband to Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, making only his second senior appearance, as a slap on the wrist.
United, whose seven changes said something about their priorities, had started brightly. But they were stunned by a superb strike from Eduardo after only seven minutes, the Brazilian-born Croatia international controlling a pass from Nicklas Bendtner at the edge of the penalty area before beating goalkeeper Ian Bennett at the near post with a stinging left-foot drive.
Yet there was regular pressure on Fabianski's goal, David Carney going close with a low, diagonal shot, Jonathan Stead likewise with his head.
Those chances gave Robson every reason to send his players out for the second half believing they could reverse the scoreline and they might have clung to that had Eduardo not been ushered through to score his second goal five minutes after the restart.
Responding to a through ball from Keiron Gibbs, an 18-year-old Englishman making his debut at left-back, the 24-year-old ran unchecked through a gaping chasm in United's back four before slotting the ball home to Bennett's right.
There was no doubt about the outcome after the 69th minute, when United's defence dropped their guard again, allowing Denilson the freedom to retrieve the ball outside the United box, turn unchallenged and then beat Bennett from 25 yards, aided by a deflection off Morgan.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Bennett; Bromby, Lucketti, Morgan, Armstrong; Carney, Montgomery, Tonge (Gillespie, 74), S Quinn (Webber, 62); Stead (A Quinn, 62), Sharp. Substitutes not used: Kilgallon, Gerrard (gk).
Arsenal (4-3-3): Fabianski; Diarra, Song, J Hoyte, Gibbs; Denilson, Gilberto, Diaby (Merida, 88); Walcott (Lansbury, 83), Bendtner, Eduardo (Barazite, 85). Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), G Hoyte.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).