Millwall's underdogs must aim to find the Sunderland spirit of '73

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Only goal difference separated Bury and Derby County in the First Division table in 1903. It was thus quite a surprise when, in the FA Cup final, Bury beat Derby 6-0.

Only goal difference separated Bury and Derby County in the First Division table in 1903. It was thus quite a surprise when, in the FA Cup final, Bury beat Derby 6-0.

The gap between today's FA Cup finalists is somewhat larger. Manchester United are third in the Premiership, Millwall 10th in the First Division. United, aside from the suspended Rio Ferdinand, are at full strength. Sir Alex Ferguson's only problem is which of his 18 available internationals to omit. Millwall are without several players including Danny Dichio, their leading striker, Kevin Muscat, their captain, and Tony Warner, their goalkeeper. Dennis Wise, the player-manager, leading midfielder and only previous FA Cup finalist, has this week been in Italy receiving treatment on a muscle injury. He may play, but he will not be fit.

So what price Manchester United matching Bury's victory, which remains an FA Cup final record? According to the bookmakers, 66-1. Worth a tenner, but so are Millwall, priced at 8-1 in a two-horse race.

For strange things can happen in the FA Cup, as Wise knows well having been in the Wimbledon side that upset Liverpool in 1988. It is often forgotten, however, that Wimbledon finished seventh that season, only six places adrift of Liverpool. A Millwall win at Cardiff today would be a far greater shock, one to stand alongside Sunderland's win over Leeds United in 1973.

Sunderland that day were organised, hard-working, showed no little skill and were indebted to Jim Montgomery for his legendary double save. Millwall, though patched-up, should be well prepared by Wise and Ray Wilkins and have, in Wise, Tim Cahill and Paul Ifill talented players. In Andy Marshall they have a goalkeeper capable, on his day, of emulating Montgomery's dramatic shot-stopping. In Darren Ward and Matt Lawrence they have a solid pair of centre-halves who will seek to suffocate Ruud van Nistelrooy as effectively as the then unknown Dave Watson did Allan Clarke all those years ago.

They will, though, miss Dichio. Sunderland scored from a set-piece and, with Wise's precise delivery, that would have been Millwall's best hope. Instead, they must seek to stifle United and hope when they engineer an opening, it is taken.

"We can't afford to give the ball away," Wilkins, a Cup winner with United in 1983, said. "If we do, United will keep the ball for long periods of time and they will create chances.

"We've worked extremely hard on our ball retention this week. That is paramount. Passing will be a vital aspect of our game. It needs to be spot-on. Then, if we are organised, we get a chance and can put it away, who knows what might happen?"

Millwall are seeking to be the 43rd name on the Cup, and the first new one since Wimbledon. They are the only Football League club to reach the final since the Premiership began and hope to be first from outside the top flight to win it since West Ham in 1980. Wise aims to be the first man to win the competition with three different clubs and only the second player-manager after Kenny Dalglish in 1986.

United, meanwhile, are seeking an addition to their record 10 victories. It would be Ferguson's fifth, also a record. United have not been beaten in the competition by lower division opponents since a third-round defeat to Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth in 1984.

United can recall Keane to play in his sixth FA Cup final, a figure unmatched since the 19th century. With Darren Fletcher likely to partner him in central midfield, Phil Neville will either make way or move to left-back at John O'Shea's expense. In goal, Tim Howard looks to have edged out Roy Carroll, while, with Louis Saha Cup-tied, Paul Scholes should play off Van Nistelrooy.

Millwall remain "hopeful" that Wise will make it. A decision will be made close to kick-off. If he plays, Marvin Elliot is likely to deputise for Muscat at right-back. If he does not, the teenager can expect to be moved into midfield with either Joe Dolan or Allan Dunne, both still returning to fitness after injury, at full-back. Either way Ryan Giggs, on his other home ground, will be expected to prosper. But then, so was Eddie Gray in '73. He was substituted after Dick Malone marked him out of the game.

Much will depend on Millwall's nerve. Several of their team have appeared in play-off games and a few played at Wembley. But, said Wilkins earlier this week: "I don't sense from them they know what they are about to walk into. Once we get to Cardiff, and go to the stadium it will start to kick in. When they find we can't get down streets because the coach is being mobbed I sincerely hope they will realise what it is all about. It is massive."

The odds are on a poor game. Both teams have struggled for form since the semi-finals Millwall winning one match in eight, United two in eight. If Millwall are to claim what would be an extraordinary victory, they are likely to do so 1-0, like West Ham, Southampton and Sunderland, the only non-top-flight winners since the Second World War. Millwall are looking for a hero to follow Trevor Brooking, Bobby Stokes and Ian Porterfield but it is hard to imagine one emerging.

Equally important for the south London club is the behaviour of their supporters. If they can match their performance at the semi-final in Manchester, when they provided lusty, good-humoured and peaceful support, the event could prove a milestone for Millwall whatever the result.