Manchester United 2 Southampton 0
The either/or smokescreen that has smothered the FA Cup semi-finalists cleared a little last night when Manchester United made it into the last four for the third successive year. Whether Southampton feel they deserved to go out is a different matter.
On a night when United fell short of their best, they were thankful to the man never far from a headline, Eric Cantona, for taking them through to a semi-final against Chelsea or Wimbledon at Villa Park on 31 March. He scored the first goal, his fourth in the competition this season, and made the second for Lee Sharpe. The Frenchman has never lost an FA Cup tie.
Even so, plenty of people making the long trip back to Hampshire would have felt aggrieved. For much of final 10 minutes Southampton had the home team pinned in their area and, as United only snatched their second in injury time, the scoreline was deceptive.
The more so because Southampton believed they should have had a goal before United scored. Neil Shipperley appeared to have timed his jump and header beautifully to beat Peter Schmeichel at the far post but the effort was disallowed for a push on Sharpe. Television evidence suggested the referee might be one of a very small minority who thought it invalid.
"If it had been at the other end," Dave Merrington, the Southampton manager, said, "I think the goal would have been given. We were the better team tonight. Not many teams will come to Old Trafford and give United as hard a game as that."
Southampton, the last team to beat United in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, four years ago, took the bold option of playing two wide men and at first it appeared the tactic would misfire horribly. United poured into the space and could have been three up in nine minutes.
Nicky Butt put Cantona in flight and, although the Frenchman's shot was partially saved, the ball rolled slowly to the gaping net and only a lunge from Ken Monkou stopped it crossing the line. A minute later Andy Cole left Richard Hall kicking at the air but his shot was not strong enough and, after nine minutes Steve Bruce headed wide from Denis Irwin's cross. United were rampant, the Saints resembling a boxer pummelled to the point of clinging to the ropes.
Fighters come back from there, though, and Shipperley's "goal" underlined the obvious dangers with such profligacy, a lesson that the home team seemingly took to heart as they went ahead four minutes after the interval.
Cole can sometimes greet a football like someone reacquainting themselves with a bicycle after years out of the saddle: he knows what to do but is ungainly and unsure in doing it. When he received possession this time he turned sweetly, however, and delivered a perfectly weighted pass to Ryan Giggs on the left.
While the Welsh winger hurtled to the byline, Cantona dummied to go to the near post and then peeled off. Giggs passed long, leaving the Frenchman to side-foot in from two yards.
That allowed United the luxury of sitting back and as Southampton forged forward - Mark Walters forcing Schmeichel into a save with his legs seven minutes from time - there was always the prospect of a breakaway.
That arrived in injury time, Cantona skipping past Simon Charlton on the right flank before pulling the ball back. Nicky Butt flicked on with a heel and Sharpe finished it off at the far post.
"We can consider ourselves fortunate," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "A lot of credit must go to Southampton." That will not be much of a consolation.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, G Neville, P Neville; Sharpe, Butt, Keane, Giggs; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: May, Scholes, Beckham.
Southampton (4-4-2): Beasant; Dodd, Hall, Monkou, Charlton; Oakley, Magilton, Widdrington, Walters (Robinson, 88); Le Tissier, Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Hughes, Grobbelaar (gk).
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).Reuse content