It was men against boys and the men took a hell of a beating. This was Manchester City's 12th straight defeat to the champions and not even the night at Maine Road three years ago when they were four down at half-time could have been more humiliating.
They were overcome by an Arsenal side that featured not a single player that travelled to Old Trafford on Sunday and they were beaten comfortably. Not even Robbie Fowler's 200th career goal, a fiercely-struck free-kick in the final minute of stoppage time, could count as compensation. When he stepped up to take it, Kevin Keegan turned to his assistant, Derek Fazackerley, and said he hoped it did not go in since there would be no time to restart. "How typical of Manchester City, that we should rattle one into the top corner when it would do us no good. It was a nothing goal," he said, his voice overflowing with anger and raw hurt.
By the time Arsène Wenger reaches the final year of his new contract, the Arsenal manager would hope to be denied the dubious pleasures of the Carling Cup. However, if the competition serves a purpose at Highbury, it was admirably fulfilled with two goals that would not have appeared out of place in the senior side. Robin van Persie, a fierce if erratic talent bred on Rotterdam street football, finished off a sweetly timed pass from Mathieu Flamini, while Daniel Karbassiyoon's shot sparked a mass walk-out from a City of Manchester Stadium that boasted 26,000 empty seats.
Wenger described Van Persie's strike as "a typical Arsenal goal" and in English football this is a phrase that carries very high praise. Their performance markedly stepped up a gear with the introduction of Quincy Owusu-Abeiye, a product of Ajax's fabled academy and part of what Wenger described as a five-year programme of headhunting young talent from across Europe.
However, you could tell the slenderness in Arsenal's resources, compared to their rivals, just by glancing at the team Wenger put out last night. It cost a fraction of the £90m worth of players Jose Mourinho flung into his Carling Cup tie at Stamford Bridge and the £35m side Manchester United had fielded against Crewe on Tuesday. This really was a side of raw kids (and Pascal Cygan), who in the event found themselves barely stretched. Arsenal increased in poise and balance as the tie wore on; as in Keegan's words they realised that Manchester City, who had seven first-team regulars, carried no threat.
"I wanted to show there was not that great a gap between Manchester City and what was almost an Arsenal third team," Keegan said. "Yes, I am embarrassed and why shouldn't I be?" His young players, he claimed, fulfilled his expectations, the senior men universally did not.
This was a match he badly wanted to win. It is 28 years since Manchester City won a trophy and the Carling Cup was their most obvious route to silverware. The sight of Fowler sprinting on to a neat cushioned header from Antoine Sibierski and then screwing wide from a dozen yards early on would have been achingly frustrating. Keegan has demanded that Fowler unequivocally prove his fitness but he has yet to prove his touch; the old marksman would have buried the chance completely.
Three days after volleys of food were flung around Old Trafford, Arsenal returned to Manchester to find a sign on their dressing-room that declared: "No soup or pizza beyond this point".
It may have been funny, Keegan conceded, but he added: "The joke is on us."
Manchester City: (4-4-2) Waterreus; Mills, Onuoha, Distin, Thatcher; Flood, Sibierski, D'Laryea (B Wright-Phillips, 80), Sinclair (Negouai, 69; Jordan, 83); S Wright-Phillips, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Ellegaard (gk), McCarthy.
Arsenal: (4-4-2) Almunia; Hoyte, Senderos, Cygan, Larsson; Pennant (Djourou, 89), Flamini, Fabregas, Smith (Owusu-Abeyie, 61); Lupoli (Karbassiyoon, 82), Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Gregg.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).