United stroll into final as Shearer's Cup dream lies in tatters again

Manchester United 4 - Newcastle United 1
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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson has always said of Ruud van Nistelrooy that he is a striker who is defined by his moods: when on form he does not feel he can miss, but out of sorts the Dutchman fears he will never score again. Perhaps he might wish to add another category to that theory after witnessing Newcastle yesterday, because opposition as poor as they were can fix the broken confidence of any profligate forward.

Sir Alex Ferguson has always said of Ruud van Nistelrooy that he is a striker who is defined by his moods: when on form he does not feel he can miss, but out of sorts the Dutchman fears he will never score again. Perhaps he might wish to add another category to that theory after witnessing Newcastle yesterday, because opposition as poor as they were can fix the broken confidence of any profligate forward.

The two goals that Van Nistelrooy banked yesterday were the first he has scored since the victory over West Bromwich Albion on 27 November and, after the waiting, when the moment finally came, it could scarcely have seemed more effortless. If this signalled the return to form of Van Nistelrooy then it is already far too late to rescue United's Premiership campaign.

It does mean that the FA Cup final on 21 May will at the very least be decided by English football's current two most prolific goalscorers: Van Nistelrooy, on a rescue mission for United's season, and Thierry Henry, who missed Saturday's semi-final win, with a point to prove.

The final will take us back to a feud that captivated the country in the weeks leading up to Christmas. That series of recriminations between Ferguson and his Arsenal counterpart Arsène Wenger - that feel like so much ancient history since Jose Mourinho decided to take on the world - will now have a gripping epilogue in Cardiff's May sunshine.

How little effort Ferguson's team had to expend to stake their place in the Millennium Stadium's last FA Cup final. Newcastle's brief flirtation with success seems so much the sadder than the efforts of Blackburn on Saturday when you consider the vast following they bring with them.

Yesterday, the massed ranks of Geordie support were like the army that surrendered without firing a shot after a week in which they have travelled to Lisbon and Cardiff only to watch their season collapse around them.

That means that the 36th anniversary of Newcastle's last trophy will pass without any new success and it was a measure of the strange dynamic at the heart of Souness' team that there was a place in it for Laurent Robert.

The French winger has been lucid and uncompromising in his criticism of Newcastle's lack of progress for which Souness said he had apologised. In truth, Robert had more to say sorry about for his contribution over 90 minutes yesterday.

Souness refused to criticise his players but he did hint at the scope of the re-building task that awaits him in the summer. There was another ineffectual performance in Newcastle's midfield from Nicky Butt - so bad that when he presented the ball to Wayne Rooney at the start of the move for United's third goal it was hard not to think he may have momentarily forgotten that his allegiances switched last summer. If this had been Alan Shearer's last FA Cup appearance then it would have been a most unsuitable farewell to the competition.

After the débâcle at Norwich last Saturday, Ferguson's team were much more dazzling on the counter-attack and looked like they may have done enough to earn a penalty through Cristiano Ronaldo after seven minutes. Instead, Mike Riley, a referee who has been accused of a sympathetic attitude at Old Trafford in the past, dealt the Portuguese a yellow card for diving.

After 13 minutes, Ronaldo passed Celestine Babayaro again in the Newcastle area with a cross from the by-line that eluded Jean-Alain Boumsong and dropped to the feet of Van Nistelrooy, who steered it inside Shay Given's far post. There was no discernible response from Newcastle for the entirety of the half and seconds before the interval, Ronaldo had the space to pick out Paul Scholes who headed the ball across Given and into the far corner.

It was Butt's loose pass that started the move for the third goal. Rooney rampaged forward and exchanged passes with Scholes, who took possession for a second time when the teenager was challenged on the edge of the area. His ball into the box was picked up by Van Nistelrooy, who turned and had time to pass the ball inside Given's post.

Within a minute, Shola Ameobi had claimed Newcastle's only goal of the game. The striker was a rare source of resistance against a defence that was ruthlessly managed by United's left-back Gabriel Heinze and exposed another worrying weakness in Tim Howard when he ran on to Shearer's pass and squeezed a shot between the United goalkeeper's legs. The fourth goal was turned in by Ronaldo on 76 minutes from Van Nistelrooy's pass.

Not for the first time, Ferguson argued that winning the FA Cup means a successful season and beating Arsenal next month will make a point about the relative state of the two sides that will give the United manager great pleasure. However glad he is about reaching the FA Cup final, Ferguson could hardly say the same of beating Newcastle.

Goals: Van Nistelrooy (20) 0-1, Scholes (45) 0-2, Van Nistelrooy (58) 0-3, Ameobi (59) 1-3, Ronaldo (76) 1-4.

Newcastle (4-4-2): Given; Carr, Taylor, Boumsong, Babayaro (O'Brien h-t); Milner (Kluivert 64), Faye (N'Zogbia h-t), Butt, Robert; Ameobi, Shearer.

Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Ambrose.

Booked: Milner, Robert.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Howard; G Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze; Ronaldo (Giggs 77), Keane, Fortune, Rooney (Smith 77); Scholes (Fletcher 77); Van Nistelrooy.

Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Silvestre.

Booked: Ronaldo, Brown.

Attendance: 69, 280.

Man of the match: Van Nistelrooy.

Referee: M Riley (Hampshire).

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