Manchester United were relegated to the unusual position of a sideshow as Burton Albion accepted the acclaim of Old Trafford and jostled for Wayne Rooney's autograph on Wednesday night. As reassuring as the final result for Sir Alex Ferguson, however, was the sight of two youngsters and one baby-faced veteran attempting to reclaim the limelight from the Conference club's honourable exit from the FA Cup.
Ferguson braved the ignominy of another cup embarrassment to make only one change from the side held by Nigel Clough's men at the Pirelli Stadium, reasoning, quite correctly, that any Manchester United XI should be equipped to overcome a club 104 places and four divisions below. If there was an element of risk to his decision then it was one he had to take, given how precarious confidence can be in the development of any young professional, but with his show of faith rewarded in the performances of Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique and the ongoing rehabilitation of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ferguson ultimately gleaned more from the tie than he would have imagined possible 10 days before. "Rossi and Pique were my plus points," he admitted.
The pair illustrate how United have adopted the Arsenal approach of prising young talent not only from Britain but also throughout continental Europe since Roman Abramovich ended their duopoly of the Premiership. Born just a day apart (Rossi turns 19 on 1 February, while Pique follows suit the next day) they were enticed from Parma and Barcelona respectively in the summer of 2004, although only this season have they begun to make an impression among the senior ranks.
While the Catalan centre-half Pique displayed composure and intelligence against Burton - and it is worth considering the calibre of United's third-round opponents before ushering in a brave new world for Ferguson's team - it was the diminutive Rossi who was the game's outstanding performer, producing the vision and flair that Old Trafford demands and the penetration Ferguson has craved in recent seasons. His two goals took his tally for this campaign to four in 10 appearances but it was the invention that created goals for Kieran Richardson and Ryan Giggs, plus two excellent chances for the disappointing Louis Saha, that allowed the Premiership club to finally confirm their superiority over the Brewers.
"I enjoyed it because of the two goals, but getting an assist is just as important to me as scoring," revealed Rossi yesterday. "I am always looking for the ball and trying to make something happen."
The teenager's awareness encouraged comparisons with Rooney, who was deeply embarrassed to be asked for his autograph by the entire Burton Albion team before kick-off, although bracketing Rossi alongside United's No 8 on the basis of a good night's work borders on hysteria.
Rooney is no giant but he has a frame to compensate while Rossi, at 5ft 9in in height, is yet to intimidate a team above non-League level. "I'm not the biggest of the bunch so it was good to score a header," he said of his first goal on Wednesday.
Rossi does, however, have time for an education - "as a young player I am learning so much from Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and the other guys," - and, as well as being hailed by Ferguson as the most natural goalscorer at the club since Paul Scholes, he has already demonstrated a hunger to succeed at the highest level.
Though born in New Jersey, an Italian parentage enabled him to take dual nationality and join Parma as a schoolboy, where he played in the same youth team as Arsenal's promising striker Arturo Lupoli. He has represented Italy's Under-19 team and was earmarked for a rapid promotion to Serie A by Parma before, much to their disgust, United encouraged him to set up home in a third country 18 months ago.
"Rossi's a very humble guy, a nice lad, and he knows he needs to get more experience," said Solskjaer. "We see his ability all the time in training, and he's a really interesting prospect. He's a great footballer and an exceptional finisher, absolutely fantastic. He can think football, play football and he's very strong. He's got a big future ahead of him. It's great to see, because the young players are a breath of fresh air at the club."
Youth was not the only source of satisfaction for Ferguson on Wednesday. The sight of Solskjaer starting a competitive game at Old Trafford for the first time since March 2004, just weeks after the United manager had aired doubts that he would ever play again, represented a major advance for the Norwegian who has been plagued by knee problems for almost two years.
"It was great for me personally to play again at Old Trafford," said the 32-year-old striker. "It was even more special because my two children were there to watch too. If you'd said to me 20 months ago that I would captain the side at Old Trafford, play for 90 minutes and we'd win 5-0, I would have bitten your hand off. I still need time, but they were my first 90 minutes since coming back and I enjoyed every one of them."Reuse content