In the end it was a routine victory for Manchester United on Tuesday evening as they brushed aside a weary Norwich 4-0 to reach the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup.
Yet while most Red Devils fans will merely be content to see a return to comfortable Old Trafford ties, David Moyes will be busy scrutinising the performances of his young charges in particular.
The competition will be way down the manager’s list of priorities after taking over Sir Alex Ferguson’s well-worn seat in the dugout, but such games may prove invaluable in helping the 50-year-old shape his vision for the club.
After an alarming start to the season with three league defeats in just nine games ceding an eight-point advantage to pacesetters Arsenal, any performances of real note will take on added significance for the former Everton boss.
Whereas the league cup was once a litmus test to test to see which youngsters had the mettle to join Ferguson’s first-team squad full of genuine stars in their prime, even Moyes himself admits the champions are well short of the quality needed to win the Champions League.
Just one United player – Robin van Persie – featured on the Ballon d’Or list announced on Tuesday, emphasising the side’s reliance on both his genius and Sir Alex Ferguson’s effervescence to clinch the 2012/13 title in a campaign devoid of legitimate challengers.
It would be naïve to read too far into a drubbing of the struggling Canaries, but Moyes may allow himself a few stolen moments to purr over the rich promise within his ranks.
Phil Jones cut a committed figure in the centre of the park and capped his display with a fine volleyed goal, while Wilfried Zaha was finally allowed to show what he can do with an enterprising (if unspectacular) competitive debut.
Adnan Januzaj’s fearlessness on the ball was enthralling, with Norwich’s back-line unable to cope with his movement and passing; Alexander Buttner put in a dynamic display with improved positioning, and even the forgotten twin – Fabio da Silva – highlighted his credentials by capping his cameo appearance with a well-taken goal.
In an intriguing sub-plot to the night, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both started for the first time together in a league cup game. The decision suggests Moyes is either desperate for the duo to regain form and fitness, or a statement that neither centre-back is an automatic choice from now on, with Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling pushing for places.
Ferdinand has not had the kind of start to the 2013/14 campaign likely to earn him a contract extension past next summer’s expiry date, while Vidic has too shown signs of creakiness – the careful management of their respective injuries also means Moyes can no longer rely on the once-imperious partnership for an extended period.
Patrice Evra’s future remains uncertain with Moyes likely to bid for Leighton Baines in the January transfer window, while Ryan Giggs is 39 and already signed up to Moyes’ coaching staff. Even Van Persie and Michael Carrick – arguably United’s two consistently class performers – are the wrong side of 30.
Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have endured torrid starts to the campaign, and while Zaha’s levels of motivation have been questioned by his manager, the 20-year-old did enough to suggest he should be considered ahead of the toiling trio. The harsh truth is that few of United’s handsomely paid ‘elite’ has been up to scratch this season, save for a resurgent Wayne Rooney.
Paul Pogba left the club last summer for Juventus in frustration at a lack of match time under Ferguson, yet Januzaj is swiftly proving there is now the chance to step up and grab a place in Moyes’ team if the talent and temperament are evident.
The old guard of Old Trafford have by no means fallen yet, and will surely be vital in navigating the relatively green manager through unknown waters – particularly when it comes to battles abroad.
The club recently scored a spectacular own-goal by having to apologise for a Swastika-style logo on a newsletter featuring the ‘New Order’ of starlets, just the latest PR disaster following a number of embarrassing gaffes during the summer transfer window.
But regardless of the ‘franchise’s’ machinations, the undeniable truth is that on the pitch United – whether with the ‘Busby Babes’, or through ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ – have always found a sense of identity, direction and indeed success through youth; a fact surely not lost on a new coach desperate to emulate his knighted predecessor.
Whisper it, but the age of ‘Moyes’ Boys’ may well be dawning – be it through necessity as much as tradition.