Ruud told: be a blaster and you can be a master again

FA Cup semi-final: Ferguson shows arch striker how to end goal drought as counterpart calls for change of Toon
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A tale of two Uniteds: Newcastle attempting to plaster over some deep fissures and structural damage sustained in the last fortnight; and the men of Manchester desperate to place some superficial gloss on what by their own standards has been a season devoid of their natural lustre.

A tale of two Uniteds: Newcastle attempting to plaster over some deep fissures and structural damage sustained in the last fortnight; and the men of Manchester desperate to place some superficial gloss on what by their own standards has been a season devoid of their natural lustre.

Both clubs wounded after recent events; both sufficiently hungry to breathe life into what is so frequently a moribund occasion. Defeat for Graeme Souness's men would be received no doubt stoically by a St James' Park faithful who have long accepted the reality that nothing is achieved at their club without some pain and humiliation.

For Sir Alex Ferguson's team, however, and indeed for the manager himself, defeat would be rather more significant at the conclusion of eight days in which they have been defeated by the bottom club, Norwich City, a result followed by their ritual chastisement at such moments by their captain, Roy Keane. It has also been eight days in which Ferguson's tactics have been condemned by United old boys Lou Macari and Jimmy Greenhoff; eight days in which Wayne Rooney has barely been absent from the tabloid news schedules, and Rio Ferdinand somehow found himself in the same restaurant as the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon.

And at the end of it all, the American tycoon Malcolm Glazer looming into focus once again, like a particularly unsightly and stubborn boil on the healthy features of United, with a takeover bid of renewed vigour.

Yet Ferguson, far from distracted or in one of those cussed moods on Friday at the club's Carrington training base, was full of the joys of FA Cup ambition. But then he is fully aware of how crucial that pot would be to conceal United's shortcomings and, some would say, his own, this season.

"A trophy is a trophy, and it's an important trophy," the Scot rasps. "You'd have to say that the European Cup is a bonus thing, the Premier League is something we expect to be involved in, seriously involved in, and we're not this season, so that's a disappointment. Winning the FA Cup is a repayment for the work you have to put in, it's always the last game of the season, always an occasion, and we've been fortunate to win it five times in my time."

It would also be some reward for the players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney who had arrived at Old Trafford in the expectation that the job entitled them to a trophy. Ferguson adds: "For any young player coming to this club in his first season, it is important to win a trophy. It's the same as when [Gary] Pallister, [Mike] Phelan, [Paul] Ince and [Danny] Wallace joined us in 1989. We won a trophy in that first year. We developed and blossomed from that."

What concerns him is the dearth of goals. None against Norwich and Blackburn; top scorer, a midfielder, Paul Scholes; Ruud van Nistelrooy, admittedly injured for the middle part of the season, desperately out of sorts.

Earlier, Scholes had done the decent thing and claimed that Van Nistelrooy's team-mates bore as much responsibility for that famine as the Dutch striker. "It's down to the rest of us," says the former international, now retired from England duty. "We're not creating chances for him. In the last few games, I can't really remember a decent chance he's had."

Even 31 years of coaching experience was not sufficient for Ferguson to produce an explanation. "I don't understand it," the United manager says of Van Nistelrooy, who has been linked with a possible move to Real Madrid or Barcelona at the end of this season. "Every striker I've had, when they're scoring, they're fantastic; when they're not scoring they feel they're not contributing at all. He's exactly the same as all the other strikers there's ever been. We've just got to weather the situation until he hits that bloody net. And we hope it's Sunday."

Ferguson, a former Rangers striker, adds: "I remember I went 17 games without scoring myself once. My dad used to say to me, 'You've got to hit the target. Just make sure you blast it. If the goalkeeper's got to save it, what the crowd will be saying is, "What a great save that was".' That's why I say to all strikers, 'Make sure you blast 'em'. I've said that to Ruud. 'Blast it. Don't mess about. Just hit them'. If it hits the goalkeeper's kneecap, or head, it doesn't matter. If you try and slip it past the goalkeeper, and it doesn't quite get there, they'll be saying, 'For Christ's sake, he's got no strength, no belief'."

What Van Nistelrooy requires is some of the fortune that Ferguson clearly believes has contributed to Chelsea's conquests in the Premiership. The United manager appears utterly bemused by the scale of the London club's achievements this season, although how much that is a defence mechanism against accusations that his own team have underperformed is hard to discern.

"We lost the League in the first game of the season," he insists. "That was the decider for us. If we'd won, I don't think they'd have won the League. But they went on and developed from a scabby 1-0 win, and had plenty of them. Sixteen 1-0 wins [actually, it is 10 in the League], and not a penalty against them all season. The most we ever had in a season was five 1-0 wins. That emphasises their year."

When the going gets tough, you can usually rely on the irascible Scot to seek out diversionary tactics. Chelsea's "questionable" record was one. He will have been gratified that Scholes also contributed to the argument that the championship will not necessarily be claimed by the best footballing side. It is, they, United, who remain the true élite. "I don't think they've played the most brilliant football that's been seen," the midfielder maintains. "They'd probably admit themselves that they haven't played that well in a few games, but they've got results. They're not really a flowing football team - but they do get results."

Opening up the Rio "dinner dates" affair by claiming that "whatever Peter Kenyon's intentions were, you'd have to worry about it, given his record" appeared another example of providing a distraction at a difficult time; but with Fergie as victim? It's not an easy image to project.

What he may have to accept, though, is that a failure by United to account for Graeme Souness's injury-stricken, suspension-weakened team today may leave him cast in a role with which he is unfamiliar: that of the villain.

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