Football: Usual suspects rule semi-final roost

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The Independent Online
ONE DAY someone will write about the true magic of the FA Cup. Not about the postman who had, as a youngster, dreamed of shining Gary Lineker's boots, or the non-League team who embarrassed their betters, but about the lasting fascination for a competition which is more predictable by the year.

If you had picked four teams most likely to reach tomorrow's semi-finals you would not have run the risk of being certified if you had come up with Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle and Tottenham. Indeed, begging Chelsea and Leeds' pardon, they are arguably playing better than anyone else in the Premiership.

You have to go back seven years since a team from outside the top division, Sunderland, made it to Wembley and to 1976 since Southampton of the then- Second Division surprised Manchester United. Those exceptions apart, the rule has come from the usual sources.

Tomorrow as much as any time, as the last four contains both 1998 finalists, the three most recent winners of the Double and, in Arsenal and United, the two clubs who have won the Cup five times between them in the 1990s. Why we get so excited by Oldham versus Chelsea and their likes on frozen January pitches, when we already have a good idea what is going to happen, is something that only romantics can explain.

Alex Ferguson, for example: "It just shows how little we regard the FA Cup," the United manager said, ironically, after his side had removed Liverpool with a frantic finale. "There is a magic about the Cup. It gets you going."

Phil Neville remembered United's defeat by Barnsley last year in his book, co-written with his brother Gary, For Club and Country. "Anyone who thought we didn't care about the FA Cup should have seen us in the dressing room or on the coach home... We were devastated."

So United will be hell-bent to beat Arsenal at Villa Park tomorrow even though the tie comes at an inconvenient point in the season, midway between their Champions' League semi-final with Juventus. Pride, glory, you name the reason - the FA Cup still has the power to excite or despair.

United, going for a treble, will be anxious to win tomorrow no matter what team they put out and particularly as they have scores to settle with the players who are chasing them hardest in the Premiership. Until they held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in February, they had lost four consecutive games to the Gunners.

If you thought Juventus made a mess of Manchester United's vaunted reputation, particularly in the first half at Old Trafford on Wednesday, then it was not the first time this season. They were thoroughly beaten by Arsenal in the Charity Shield and lost again 3-0 at Highbury in September.

"We were outplayed," Roy Keane admitted afterwards and it was in his department, midfield, where the game was won. Patrick Vieira eclipsed the Irishman on both those occasions.

Emmanuel Petit will not be there to help his French compatriot tomorrow because he is suspended, but in a week when United have been labouring in Europe that will not be as crucial as would have been if they were fresh. Marc Overmars is a player who can exact terrible damage on tired limbs.

If United and Arsenal need no introduction then neither do Newcastle and Tottenham, who meet at Old Trafford six days after a 1-1 draw in the Premiership at St James' Park. That was a dress rehearsal without the principal actors; Alan Shearer, David Ginola and the rest will be present tomorrow.

In the Toon Army's nightmares it is Ginola, a Newcastle idol too cavalier for the roundhead Kenny Dalglish, who will spread sobs on the Tyne and if he provides the cross that allows Les Ferdinand, another former St James' Park player, to score the winner their misery will be complete.

Leicester City employed Rob Ullathorne to man-mark the Frenchman into near irrelevance in the Worthington Cup Final at Wembley last month and Andy Griffin will probably get the task tomorrow.

"He's one of the best players in the League, without doubt," Griffin said. "In the last couple of months, he's ripped teams apart single-handedly, but it showed in the Worthington Cup final that he's only human and can be kept quiet."

If Newcastle can contain Ginola and give Dietmar Hamman the space to play his subtle passing game then they have a chance to repeat their appearance in last year's final, but it is a big "if". Tottenham have won once at Wembley this season and have more "big-game" players.

Arsenal to win by a single goal and Tottenham to go through after a replay. A north London FA Cup final derby? Now that is something that has not happened before.