Man Utd 3 Middlesbrough 1
It was almost as if Cristiano Ronaldo had never been away as he marked his return to Manchester United’s starting line-up with a goal.
Exactly 125 days after the final one of his 42 last season, Ronaldo converted his first of this one.
A Carling Cup tie with Middlesbrough may be somewhat less enthralling than a Champions League final at the Luzhniki Stadium but the headers were eerily similar, marking the end of a turbulent summer for Ronaldo and providing confirmation he intends to be a major player for United again this season - despite his stated desire to join Real Madrid.
It was veteran Ryan Giggs who got United’s deserved winner though, chipping home after Adam Johnson had blasted Boro level, before Nani struck a third in stoppage-time.
But there was a sour taste as well as Boro skipper Emanuel Pogatetz was dismissed for a tackle on Rodrigo Possebon which saw the 19-year-old Brazilian require lengthy treatment before eventually being carried from the field.
It was an awful end to an impressive evening for Possebon, the brightest of a gifted crop of youngsters for the Red Devils.
Given the events at Manchester City in the last couple of weeks, the emphasis on finding young talent has taken on even more significance for United, who are no longer the biggest spenders in the city, never mind the country.
Sir Alex Ferguson has traditionally tended to use the League Cup as a proving ground but all too often in recent years it has signalled the end of first-team dreams rather than the start.
However, 12 months on from a dreadful home loss to Coventry, this crop of Red Devils youngsters showed they were up to the task.
Injury ruled out Fabio Da Silva but brother Rafael and fellow Brazilian Rodrigo Possebon are stars of the future on this showing.
Indeed, Possebon was so impressive in the centre of midfield against opponents who so often cause United problems that Ferguson might have a job holding him back – assuming his injury is not serious.
And in Danny Welbeck the Old Trafford outfit have a local-born striker worthy of the praise he has been showered with on England Under-19 duty.
At 21 and 20 respectively, Nani and Anderson are not that much older but with significantly more experience, it was no surprise the pair took on more responsibility.
Nani appeared to be on a one-man mission to score, only to find Boro’s own talented youngster, David Wheater, in top form, along with Brad Jones, who made a series of excellent saves.
Neither Wheater nor Jones could do anything about Ronaldo’s header though, the prospective world footballer of the year racing away to celebrate what he hopes will be the end of the most turbulent period in his career.
Gareth Southgate lifted this trophy in 2004, the only time Boro have won a major trophy, but he must have been sadly disappointed with his side’s first half showing.
Afonso Alves threatened early on and Stewart Downing got into some good positions but the Teessiders never threatened rookie keeper Ben Amos, propelled into Ferguson’s side due to injury.
But if the England Youth international had allowed himself a slight smile of satisfaction during the interval, Amos received a rude awakening 12 minutes after the restart as Johnson lashed Boro level.
There appeared little danger as Nemanja Vidic nodded Downing’s cross out of the area but Johnson caught his first-time volley perfectly, giving Amos little chance of keeping it out.
At that point, a well-contested game was in the balance but soon came the twist which saw Pogatetz sent from the field.
The Boro captain got to the ball just in front of Possebon as the pair went for it in fully committed fashion.
But Pogatetz’s dangerous follow-through cut Possebon down, a nasty gash instantly appearing on the Brazilian’s right leg as he yelled in agony.
It took the United medical staff five minutes to treat the Brazilian and substantially less for referee Andre Marriner to show Pogatetz the red card.
With a man advantage, United were given another advantage 11 minutes from time when O’Neil stood on the ball attempting to control Gibson’s long pass, enabling Giggs to advance and calmly chip past Jones.
Nani wrapped up the win in stoppage-time, although Boro were a spent force by then.