Luck of draw keeps Arsenal and United apart

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One would not dream of impugning a man of Trevor Brooking's impeccable reputation; nevertheless, when the Football Association's director of football development reached into a fishbowl containing four balls representing the FA Cup semi-finalists one could not help looking closely to see if two of them had been pre-heated to such a degree they made him wince when selecting them.

In the event the Football Association trusted luck to keep Manchester United and Arsenal apart and were rewarded when Brooking paired the holders with Newcastle United and the champions with Blackburn Rovers. The FA's fantasy final remained on course.

Newcastle and Blackburn will have their own strong views on this assumption. Newcastle could argue the prospect of Alan Shearer marking his retirement by leading his hometown team to their first trophy in 36 years, and first FA Cup in half a century, is the type of Boy's Own story the Cup needs to restore its lustre. Rovers, whose last FA Cup win was in 1928 will argue their tale does not lack for romance.

Mark Hughes, who took over as manager when Graeme Souness left for Newcastle earlier this season, is an FA Cup legend himself having reached five finals, winning four, and he is a Welshman to boot. This will be the last season the final is to be played at the Millennium Stadium, the new Wembley being scheduled to open in 2006.

Manchester United supporters are being urged to boycott their semi-final against Newcastle in Cardiff and have suggested playing it at Leeds' Elland Road ground instead.

Mark Longden, spokesman for IMUSA (Independent Manchester United Supporters Association) told BBC GMR: "Nobody wants to turn their back on the team but you've got to say enough is enough. I have not come across one United supporter who is happy going to Cardiff. We are getting to the end of our tether - we can't afford it.

"I would urge all United supporters to boycott the game. It is a crazy place to play a semi-final."

Newcastle have already knocked Chelsea and Tottenham out of this year's competition, and the form of Rovers has improved of late, but a second Arsenal-Manchester United final (after 1979, when Arsenal won 3-2) looks favourite. Newcastle have not beaten Manchester United since 2001. Arsenal are 30 points ahead of Blackburn in the Premiership and have scored six times without reply in winning their last three meetings. Blackburn do have the chance of a confidence booster this weekend when Arsenal visit Ewood Park.

"It's a bit of a dress rehearsal so we'll try and get a few pointers," said Mark Bowen, Rovers' assistant manager. "We've never felt so wanted as we have in the last 24 hours," said Bowen, in reference to the team's outsider status. "Everybody wanted us, but we're going to show everybody that if Arsenal take us lightly then we're well prepared and they'll come a cropper."

Shearer, a former Rover, was equally phlegmatic about Newcastle's task. "It's tough, but we have beaten Chelsea and we can do the same to Manchester United," he said. "If we beat them, and then Arsenal to win it then we'll have certainly done it the hard way."

FA Cup Semi-Finals

Arsenal v Blackburn

Last FA Cup meeting: 2001, Arsenal 3, Blackburn 0 (sixth round).

Previous semi-final meeting: 1928, Arsenal 0, Blackburn 1.

This season: Arsenal 3, Blackburn 0 (25 Aug).

Newcastle v Man United

Last FA Cup meeting: 1999, Final, Man United 2, Newcastle United 0.

Previous semi-final meeting: 1909, Man United 1, Newcastle United 0.

This season: Newcastle United 1, Manchester United 3 (14th Nov).

(Ties to be played 16 and 17 April at Millennium Stadium)