Rooney's magic offers Ferguson a smokescreen

Southampton 0 Manchester United 4
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The Independent Online

Defeat at Southampton, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, was "unthinkable". Only, the Manchester United manager would have hoped his verdict, offered after the most comprehensive of FA Cup quarter-final victories, could have been saved for the final Premiership match of the season on 15 May. Then the two sides meet again and at the same venue.

Defeat at Southampton, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, was "unthinkable". Only, the Manchester United manager would have hoped his verdict, offered after the most comprehensive of FA Cup quarter-final victories, could have been saved for the final Premiership match of the season on 15 May. Then the two sides meet again and at the same venue.

Not so long ago United would have hoped to be fighting it out with Chelsea for the title that day. Now it is the Cup, and only the Cup that, realistically, matters. And that is, indeed, unthinkable in terms of the rarefied atmosphere in which Ferguson's side are justifiably expected to operate.

But the power of the trophy should not be underestimated. It saved Ferguson's career in the past, providing the first of the 15 trophies he has won for the club. But had United been knocked out by Southampton then the pressure would have risen again over just how long he remains, even if he now operates under the most compliant of boards. Instead Ferguson is on course to, once more, rewrite history. Despite winning the Cup 11 times United have never retained it and the manager is well aware of that. He is also aware of the platform it allows him.

Indeed, he used Saturday's victory to airbrush over the crushing disappointment of the Champions' League defeat to Milan. "We had a setback but we have recovered from that and got ourselves into another semi-final," Ferguson said. "It would be very easy to look upon Tuesday as a disappointment that takes us no further. You could look at it as putting us up against a brick wall, but I believe it will only lead to better things."

Instead of a brick wall, then, he offered a smokescreen. The evidence to support his claim that United are "not far away" from "the start of a long road to future success in Europe" is dubious. What must be galling is, as the Southampton manager Harry Redknapp later revealed, Ferguson now believes Chelsea will win the Champions' League.

Very little could be drawn from victory over a shadow of a Southampton side other than to say that, at this level for sure, United are immensely formidable. The gap was as wide as the Solent. Indeed, the tie was gone in 85 seconds. That was the time it took Roy Keane to lash the ball beyond Paul Smith and score the first goal. Before it whacked into the net Southampton had touched the ball twice - once when conceding the corner and then when Keane's fierce right-foot shot had deflected off Peter Crouch's head. Contest over. Had Redknapp strode into the centre circle, picked up the ball, shook Keane's hand and called his players off, he could have been forgiven. For this was a fixture he did not want, not with the relegation battle his side faces.

"It's not an excuse," Redknapp said, "[but] I've ended up with a decimated squad." Six first-choice players, including his midfield, were missing. "To be honest, I looked at my team and just hoped we didn't get smashed up," he said.

Had it not been for another outstanding performance from Smith they would have been. For a goalkeeper to concede four and be by far your team's best player merely confirmed the gulf. If it had been a boxing contest it would have been stopped. Which would have been a shame, as it would have denied a brilliant display by Wayne Rooney who, of course, himself comes from a pugilistic family.

Rooney was brilliant. Again out on the wings - switching flanks with Cristiano Ronaldo - he showed his adaptability as well as his ability. Linking the attack and midfield he was, along with Paul Scholes, the fulcrum. Behind them Keane was commanding, while Ruud van Nistelrooy nursed his way back.

Twice after Keane's goal Rooney struck woodwork, after fine saves by Smith, before he worked the second goal for Ronaldo. Two goals by Scholes after the break also had Rooney's imprimatur on them. But it was the range and the appetite shown by the 19-year-old that was most impressive as well, after the days of debate over his bad language and his discipline.

Southampton, with a different side, will undoubtedly do better come May. They have to. Given their plight, it is time for them to declare defeat as unthinkable.

Goals: Keane (2) 0-1; Ronaldo (45) 0-2; Scholes (48) 0-3; Scholes (87) 0-4.

Southampton (4-4-2): Smith; Cranie, Lundekvam (Davenport, 45), Jakobsson, Higginbotham; Telfer, Oakley, A Svensson, Bernard (McCann, 62); Camara (Phillips, 80), Crouch. Substitutes not used: Niemi (gk), Nilsson.

Manchester United (4-3-2-1): Howard; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze (O'Shea, 60); Scholes, Keane (Phil Neville, 70), Fortune; Ronaldo (Smith 68), Rooney; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Bellion.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Manchester United Heinze.

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 30,971.

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