By Chris Harris
Those who thought Arsenal's squad lacked depth might want to think again.
Arsene Wenger's assortment of fringe players and teenage prospects swept aside Sheffield United to kick off their latest Carling Cup adventure in style on Tuesday night. Nicklas Bendtner broke the deadlock on the half-hour with a curling shot and added a second three minutes before the break. Carlos Vela produced two brilliant finishes either side of the interval to put the tie beyond the Blades' reach and the Mexican completed a stunning hat-trick after Jack Wilshere had got in on the act.
The scoreline was emphatic and it by no means flattered Arsenal. Those who make it into Wenger's Carling Cup side are often thought of as understudies but, make no mistake, some have the potential to be leading lights at Emirates Stadium for a long time to come.
Bendtner, Gael Clichy, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott all cut their teeth in the Carling Cup. The competition could easily be a launchpad for Vela, Wilshere and company as well. On this evidence, few would bet against Arsenal making it five Semi-Final appearances in six years.
Wenger's trademark approach to the Carling Cup is to blood youngsters and the Frenchman set a new benchmark tonight. He named 13 teenagers in his 18-man squad and seven of those made it into his starting line-up.
Wilshere, at 16, was the youngest on show, alongside fellow teens Aaron Ramsey, Vela, Kieran Gibbs, Gavin Hoyte, Fran Merida and Mark Randall. Goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski was the 'old man' of the side at 23 while Johan Djourou, Alex Song and Bendtner offered a semblance of first-team experience. Nonetheless, with an average age of 19, this was still the youngest ever side to represent Arsenal.
Last season Wenger's fledglings gave United a footballing lesson at Bramall Lane and the Blades started this game as if on a revenge mission. They didn't exactly impose themselves on the tie but, at first, the visitors made life uncomfortable for their young hosts. With Gary Speed orchestrating a five-man midfield, the Blades denied Arsenal space to express themselves in the early stages. As a result the home side enjoyed a territorial advantage, and the likes of Ramsey, Merida, Wilshere and Vela enjoyed some neat touches, but clear-cut chances were few and far between.
Gibbs had the first opportunity to force the Blades on the back foot but his low cross after seven minutes had too much pace and too little direction for Bendtner to convert. Five minutes later Paddy Kenny misjudged a left-wing corner and tipped the ball onto Djourou's head. The ball arrived too fast for the Swiss to direct his effort on goal.
Djourou went much closer to his first Arsenal goal after 25 minutes after kick-starting a forward move and staying up for its denouement. When the ball reached the 21-year-old just inside the box he steadied himself before clipping a shot towards the far corner. Kenny dived full length to tip the ball past the post.
The visitors struggled to make inroads of their own but when they did push on Stephen Quinn and Danny Webber were at the heart of their better moments. Webber was a livewire early on and wriggled past three challenges before scuffing his shot when well-placed.
At the other end Vela looked as likely as anyone to break deadlock and one nutmeg from the Mexican had the crowd raving. In the event, Vela was the provider as Bendtner opened the scoring. Merida got Arsenal moving through the centre and Vela turned smartly away from his marker before feeding his Danish strike partner. Bendtner advanced and stroked a low effort past Matthew Kilgallon and beyond the reach of Kenny from just outside the box. It was a confidently-taken goal from a man in form.
It was the excuse Arsenal's youngsters needed to relax and express themselves. Within minutes Wilshere had a shout for a penalty after linking up brilliantly with Ramsey and Bendtner. Chris Morgan was given the benefit of the doubt after his rash sliding tackle appeared to miss both ball and man.
But Arsenal didn't have to wait long to effectively put the tie out of sight. Ramsey was the architect of their second goal, forcing the Blades defence back with a marauding run through the left channel. The young Welshman was eventually ushered away from goal but wrongfooted everybody with an outrageous backheel. Even Bendtner looked surprised but, with Kilgallon keeping him onside, the Dane calmly dispatched his second past Kenny.
After holding their own for half-an-hour, United were shellshocked. Vela took advantage, timing his run to perfection to latch onto Bendtner's clipped pass down the right before accelerating towards goal and curling the ball past Kenny's outstretched hand. It was a classy finish from a class act - and there was more to come.
From wondering whether this Arsenal side was just a tad too inexperienced, the home fans were now speculating about how many they would score. There would be two more goals to cheer before the hour mark. Gibbs had already tested Kenny early in the second half before the left-back lofted a pass down the left flank. Vela controlled it on the turn with his shoulder, taking Morgan completely out of the game, and raced in on goal before lifting an audacious effort over the Blades keeper.
United were in disarray and they conceded a fifth eight minutes later. A short corner found Wilshere unmarked just outside the right-hand corner of the box and he fizzed a low shot past Kenny at his near post. The crowd rose as one for Arsenal's second youngest goalscorer.
There was no let-up for Kevin Blackwell's beleaguered side. Gibbs headed Merida's corner just over the crossbar and Bendtner should have completed his hat-trick after 65 minutes, rolling the ball past Kenny but wide of the post after Merida's pass had dissected the Blades defence.
Wenger made a triple change with 20 minutes left to drag the average age of his team down even further and give debuts to Jay Simpson and Francis Coquelin. The third substitute, Henri Lansbury, forced a smart save from Kenny after Coquelin had jinked past two defenders on the edge of the box.
The sixth would eventually arrive though. Ramsey picked out Vela in the left channel and the Mexican produced another stunning finish to complete his hat-trick. No wonder Wenger looked as pleased as punch on the touchline. For him, the youngsters and the rest of us, the Fourth Round can't come quick enough.
Referee: Phil Dowd