Football: Time for Ferguson to beware

FA Cup final: Treble-chasers must overcome an unpredictable Newcastle side fired up by a positive Gullit
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The Independent Online
THE BEST team, we are all agreed, is established by the championship, an unglamorous slog through autumn, winter and spring which tests the depths of a team's resources and its players' character. The FA Cup, by contrast, is a stage for show ponies, lucky gamblers and plucky underdogs. Six wins, some by the Russian roulette of penalties, and the trophy is yours.

But while the championship is the true measure of teams, the FA Cup still creates the best memories which is why, increasingly, the best teams are winning it and the same names crop up year after year.

This afternoon's 118th final is the perfect illustration. Manchester United are the fourth team in six seasons to arrive at Wembley with the Premiership title already tucked under their arms. Newcastle United are the 10th team in 23 finals to make an instant Wembley return.

For Newcastle the match offers the chance of redemption after last May's surrender to Arsenal and the possibility of their first trophy in three decades. For Manchester United it is the middle leg of a potential treble.

The FA Cup is supposed to be the "easy" leg of what would be a unique achievement but Manchester United and their supporters will need no reminding that the old pot can prove to be the slipperiest of trophies to grasp.

Twenty-two seasons ago, on the only other occasion a club has come close to winning League, FA Cup and European Cup in the same season, it was Manchester United who denied Liverpool the "easy" leg, defeating them 2-1 at Wembley with the aid of a deflected goal.

Ruud Gullit's Newcastle United, as unpredictable now as Tommy Docherty's Manchester United were then, bar the path to immortality this time and, while Manchester United are deservedly strong favourites, nothing can be guaranteed.

Having already defeated Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Fulham en route to Wembley, Manchester ought to sweep aside a Newcastle side without a win in six games. Even without the suspended Denis Irwin, the injured Jaap Stam and one or two others being saved for Wednesday's European final, Manchester look to be too powerful.

The same appeared to apply, however, four years ago when Everton defeated them with Anders Limpar unexpectedly imposing himself on Paul Ince in midfield. Since there could be as many as six players with personal memories of that day complacency is unlikely. There is also, noted Alex Ferguson yesterday, the important difference in build-up. In 1995 Manchester had lost the title the previous weekend; this time they have won it.

Ferguson also looked back to 1991 when his team beat Liverpool, Arsenal, Leeds and Southampton only to lose to then-Second Division Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup final. "This team," he insisted, "are much more focused - they have only lost four times all season."

Not that it is simply a case of the cup being Manchester's to win or lose. Newcastle have an astute manager, some high quality players, though probably not enough and, as ever, manic support. Gullit will doubtless have been plotting hard this week to find a tactical edge but his biggest test will be that of lifting a side which has been going through the motions since it reached the final.

To this end he has called upon a Dutch sports psychologist-cum-physiologist, Ted Troost, who has worked with Gullit since his early days at Haarlem. His forte, according to Gullit, is teaching players to harness energy, especially negative tension. Troost also assisted Chelsea in the build- up to their FA Cup win over Middlesbrough two years ago and, to judge from Roberto Di Matteo's 44th-second goal that day, at least sends the players out full of belief. They will need it, Since the famous `Ha-way Five-O' in October 1996, Newcastle have not beaten Manchester United in five attempts.

The match, which will be settled on the day, with penalties if necessary, is unlikely to be a classic though, after several years of dull finals, it would be a welcome change if it was. There is the prospect of goals with both sides looking stronger offensively than defensively. The probable absence of Stam may give Alan Shearer scope at one end while whichever combination Ferguson picks at the other will trouble Newcastle's porous defence.

In midfield Dietmar Hamann and Gary Speed might be able to contain Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, but David Beckham could have an enjoyable afternoon against Norbert Solano, the first Peruvian finalist. On the other flank Ryan Giggs may be rested, but Jesper Blomqvist would still be a testing replacement.

The last time these two teams met at Wembley, in the 1996 Charity Shield, Manchester United won 4-0. The scoreline is unlikely to be as emphatic but it will be a surprise if the result is not the same.

THE ROAD TO WEMBLEY

MANCHESTER UNITED

THIRD ROUND

Manchester United 3 (Cole, Irwin, Giggs) Middlesbrough 1

FOURTH ROUND

Manchester United 2 (Yorke, Solskjaer) Liverpool 1

FIFTH ROUND

Manchester United 1 (Cole) Fulham 0

QUARTER-FINAL

Manchester United 0 Chelsea 0

REPLAY

Chelsea 0 Manchester United 2 (Yorke 2)

SEMI-FINAL

Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0

REPLAY

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2 (Beckham, Giggs)

NEWCASTLE UNITED

THIRD ROUND

Newcastle Utd 2 (Speed 47, Shearer 68) Crystal Palace 1

FOURTH ROUND

Newcastle Utd 3 (Hamann, Shearer, Ketsbaia) Bradford City 0

FIFTH ROUND

Newcastle Utd 0 Blackburn Rovers 0

REPLAY

Blackburn Rovers 0 Newcastle Utd 1 (Saha 38)

SIXTH ROUND

Newcastle Utd 4 (Ketsbaia, Georgiadis, Shearer) Everton 1

SEMI-FINAL

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Newcastle Utd 2 (Shearer 2)

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