Ferguson's men glimpse salvation, leaving Lost Souls XI in torment

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The Independent Online

At the end of a week in their version of football hell, it was Manchester United's good luck to meet the Lost Souls XI. Their reward - and English football's - was an FA Cup final place against Arsenal, which means that for the first time in several years the old tournament will have the kind of climax it deserves.

At the end of a week in their version of football hell, it was Manchester United's good luck to meet the Lost Souls XI. Their reward - and English football's - was an FA Cup final place against Arsenal, which means that for the first time in several years the old tournament will have the kind of climax it deserves.

But before the intrigue and the angst of United and Arsenal attempting to rescue something from their season of lost horizons, maybe a thought should be spared for the torment of Graeme Souness.

After all the anarchy and splintered values he has encountered, this latest ordeal was maybe the cruellest assault on his spirit.

A goal from big Shola Ameobi, the sight of Alan Shearer, with a plaster on a head wound, burying doubts about his decision to play on another season and waging unequal battle with a Rio Ferdinand rumoured to be demanding as much as £150,000 a week, in the end could be no more than pinpricks of light.

The truth, even after allowing for the demands of two matches in four days and the rigours of travelling back from Lisbon, was that Newcastle were a parody of professionalism as they allowed Manchester United to find more than a little of the best of themselves.

Souness said that he felt as sorry for the players as the fans after ravages of injury and suspension. He was probably bound to say it - and to ignore the ruinous calamity of how Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer earned their bans. But not easily obscured was that if this was a second big challenge in four days, it was also a second capitulation.

Indeed, if Souness is left with the will - and is given the chance - to impose in a summer of reconstruction some of the standards he always expected of himself as a player, he might be wise to pick out a hose-pipe as his most vital implement.

He does not so much need to strengthen the spirit of this Newcastle side. Better, with the honourable exception of the old warhorse Shearer and the desperately overworked goalkeeper Shay Given, simply to wash it away and find a new one.

This Newcastle team need more than new players. They need a new understanding of responsibility, to the club, to arguably the best-hearted and most abused supporters in the land, and perhaps most of all to themselves.

What they produced in a 4-1 defeat that could easily have been doubled in its severity was not only unacceptable. It was actively insulting.

No doubt Sir Alex Ferguson passed a similar verdict when defeat came at Norwich last weekend, but here at least he had the comfort of seeing that some of his most expensive talent had not completely forgotten how to play. This was particularly true of Ruud van Nistelrooy, who not only scored twice but looked progressively in tune with his old instincts as the slaughter wore on.

Of course, Wayne Rooney would remember how to play even if you brainwashed him for a year in the more obscure aspects of the Eton Wall Game. A mere week of fresh controversy was certainly never going to make a dent on a game that simply wells with strength and insight. Rooney did not score, but his presence was a source of constant terror to Newcastle, a state of mind induced by such work as a perfect one-two with Paul Scholes and a 30-yard drive which bounced out of the hands of the startled Given. Best of all was an astonishing pass - through the legs of defender Steve Taylor - into the path of an overlapping Gary Neville.

Ferguson pronounced himself pleased with the reaction of all his players to the hard words delivered after the Norwich débâcle. He drew a veil, naturally, over Cristiano Ronaldo's yellow card for diving - a gratuitous blemish on an otherwise highly effective performance - and said that his players had performed with impressive effort - and honesty. It was true, but then why not? If Newcastle have become the grisly embodiment of a professional culture of extravagant reward and negligible performance, Manchester United also face the need for some serious atonement.

At least a little of that will be available when they come back on 21 May to meet Arsenal in an FA Cup final of rare significance. That it should be disputed by two clubs who in the past have done so much to diminish the value the old competition - United by their defection five years ago, when they held the trophy, and Arsenal by the declaration of their manager Arsène Wenger that it was more important to finish fourth in the Premiership - is a massive irony.

It is a point that will be consumed quickly enough by the need for victory next month. United were recognisable soon enough yesterday, but it was scarcely redemption. They were, after all, given a free pass.

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