The Carling Cup may not be the foremost prize in English football, but Arsenal and Manchester City could not have been more resolute. As the quarter-final proceeded a goal seemed ever more unlikely, but the visitors struck on the break six minutes from the end. Adam Johnson released Sergio Agüero and the Argentine shot low past Lukasz Fabianski to settle the tie.
In view of the depth and breadth of their squad, it would have been virtually impossible for City not to send out a potent line-up. If there was any mischief it lay in the inclusion of Samir Nasri, who had been on the opposition's books at the start of the season when £24m was still to change hands. Arsenal stuck to standard procedure for this match, including quite a few players who will be busy proving themselves for some time to come.
That policy was, in itself, a test for City since the expectations were higher than ever with such seeming callowness in the opposition's ranks. Roberto Mancini, the City manager, left no one in doubt over his priorities. Nasri was the one member of the starting line-up that drew a gruelling match at Anfield who was required to be on the Emirates pitch at kick-off.
Even so, the back-up selection had an air of potency. Arsenal, for their part, were very far from conceding the tie. Perhaps the renown of some City figures simply galvanised them. Following a lay-off by Marouane Chamakh, for instance, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit a shot from distance that had to be tipped over the bar impressively by the goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon after 27 minutes.
The reaction that followed from City illustrated their expectations. Alexander Kolarov, operating in wide midfield, was withdrawn so that City could bring on Agüero to add to the attacking intent while Nasri was relocated towards the left. Arsenal were far from cowed. The supposed handicap in a shortfall of experience merely emphasised the freshness and hunger in the ranks. Regardless of the names in the line-up, there was confidence and desire.
The time must come when a club hankers after even a trophy with a low profile. Lacking silverware since 2005, Arsenal should be ready to fall for the once obscure charms of the Carling Cup. They were sufficiently in earnest to get to Wembley in this competition last season, where they succumbed to Birmingham City, a club for whom the afternoon was a picturesque diversion on the otherwise grim road to relegation.
Even that blow has not left Arsenal disenchanted with the tournament. Here they were striving to take a further step towards reaching the final for the third time in six seasons. City, by contrast, must be in a more turbulent state of mind. The excitement of leading the Premier League is equalled only by the anxiety that they may soon be eliminated from the Champions League.
At least the liveliness of the contest here ensured that minds did not wander to any other topic at all. City would have realised the intensity of the challenge from at least the 11th minute. A slick move saw Francis Coquelin cross from the right and it took an outstanding save from Pantilimon to tip the shot by Park Chu-young over the bar. There was apparent expertise in City's ranks, but the Arsenal players relished opponents who added to the significance of the occasion.
If the visitors had the greater know-how, the challenge appeared to invigorate Arsenal. In that regard there was intrigue as well as incident, despite the match's lack of a goal. It was Arsène Wenger's men who had the intensity that promised a breakthrough. Indeed, Emmanuel Frimpong's run was only checked by a foul that brought a yellow card for Owen Hargreaves.
Obduracy is not anticipated in the Carling Cup, a tournament without replays that has no interest in deadlock. The sides at the Emirates were not conservative in the least, yet the edge was often blunt in attack. The goalkeepers had been kept busy but the great majority of their work was routine. When team selections are shuffled, it may be that attacking efficiency declines.
Even so, the struggle was hard-fought and it retained the interest of the crowd. City had redoubled their effort to assume command of the action. They achieved that territorially, but Arsenal did not seem harassed or overpowered. Indeed, Wenger's mind was on enhancing the attack and Gervinho was brought on for Park, who had not provoked much alarm in City.
Any tension lay in the stalemate itself. The player looked as if they, too, had started to think that one slip would settle the quarter-final. The Carling Cup is often regarded as a diversion of sorts, but these clubs could not have been more in earnest. Indeed, this had turned into a game that had to search long and hard for its decisive moment.