Van Nistelrooy the predator back on prowl as Newcastle fall apart

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The Independent Football

Ruud van Nistelrooy yesterday reacquainted himself with his prolific scoring touch, producing his first goals since November, to beat Newcastle United and set up the heavyweight FA Cup final that everyone expected.

Ruud van Nistelrooy yesterday reacquainted himself with his prolific scoring touch, producing his first goals since November, to beat Newcastle United and set up the heavyweight FA Cup final that everyone expected.

For the United of Manchester it will be their 17th final in the competition, as it will be for Arsenal, who as easily defeated Blackburn on Saturday, while for Newcastle there was the numbing disappointment of crashing out of two cups in four days. To add to the hurt, they suffered from the same 4-1 scoreline that saw them beaten by Sporting Lisbon on Thursday to end their Uefa Cup campaign. It will be a bitter, and all-too-familiar, pill to swallow.

If Newcastle's season is in tatters, Manchester United's has fired into life and will now be fuelled by next month's final and the unfolding desire to overtake Arsenal in the meantime and finish ahead of them and second in the Premiership. For neutrals there is the delicious prospect of one of two great clubs, and their feuding managers, inflicting the defeat that will leave the other with the rare sensation of not winning a trophy.

The final will be the fourth meeting between the two clubs this season but the first in an FA Cup final since the epic 1979 encounter which finished 3-2 to Arsenal. "I can still see that winning goal," the United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said of Alan Sunderland's late winner. He will be plotting a revenge and will be glad to do so with Van Nistelrooy scoring at last after his barren spell which followed three months of injury and led to Ferguson blaming himself for rushing the striker back too soon.

"What I hope is that Ruud maintains his scoring," Ferguson said. "When he is doing that he is unstoppable." He added: "I think that when we score goals it is more like it. It has been a problem for us this season. I don't understand it myself because there are goals all through the team."

The point was proved by strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes, while Wayne Rooney was an aggressive, swaggering threat throughout. Scholes' deft header, just before half-time, killed any hopes of a contest, with Newcastle tired and lacking in belief.

Ferguson said that the latter commodity was now flooding back through Van Nistelrooy. "When they are scoring they don't think they can miss and when they don't they don't think they can score again," he said.

United's midfielder Darren Fletcher said that Van Nistelrooy had been "magnificent" and added that people had to remember that he had come back from a "serious" Achilles injury. "It is going to be a hard game against Arsenal," the midfielder added. "It is something to look forward to at the end of the season. It is going to be built up by the Press and everyone but we will be concentrating on playing football and getting the right result."

They did that yesterday. Captain Roy Keane, referring to Champions' League and Premiership disappointments, said: "We have had a difficult few weeks and it's nice to get to another final. We wanted to make it a quick game. They had a difficult week travelling and a difficult game on Thursday. They did not get near us in the first half and we kept them on the back foot."

Alan Shearer, the deeply disappointed Newcastle captain, agreed. "It's tough with two 4-1 scorelines," he said. "But they were two very different games."

He added: "The first half was where we lost it. We sat off too much and got punished. At least we put up a fight in the second half."

By then, he conceded, it was too late and admitted to feeling sorry, particularly, for Newcastle fans whose 50-year wait to recapture this trophy continues. "We had to drive past them before the game," Shearer, the only survivor from the 1999 final defeat, said. "It sent a shiver down my spine to hear them cheer us on. They go home as disappointed as we are." He said he expected major squad rebuilding by manager Graeme Souness in the summer.

Souness himself said his team had been hurt by injuries and suspensions and also the travelling and disappointment of Lisbon. "It was always going to be difficult," he said and stated that he had no intention of blaming any of his players - even Laurent Robert, who had been recalled through necessity after his outburst before the Uefa Cup tie. The French winger, Souness said, had apologised to his team-mates. But his performance was a disappointing one. He, as much as Van Nistelrooy, added to the crushing and inevitable sense of Newcastle's comprehensive defeat.

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