United's five minutes of fury

Beckham destroys Chelsea's dreams
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The Independent Online
Chelsea 1

Gullit, 35 Manchester Utd 2

Cole, 54 Beckham, 59

Att: 38,421

Forty minutes after David Beckham had scored the goal that yesterday earned Manchester United a third successive FA Cup final, a family of Chelsea supporters sat quietly in Villa Park's Holte End. Ten minutes earlier they had been in the midst of a raucous sea of blue-and-white, now they were alone.

As they got up to leave one of them, a little girl wearing a Ruud Gullit wig, held for the last time a cardboard and tin foil replica FA Cup as tall as she was. Then she let it drop among the seats where it remained, a testament to Chelsea's broken dreams.

Her desolation would have been matched in the Chelsea dressing-room, especially by Craig Burley. Leading through a Gullit goal 10 minutes before half-time, Chelsea went out of the Cup in five dramatic second-half minutes. First Eric Cantona, whose influence ultimately eclipsed Gullit, set up Cole for a 54th-minute equaliser. Then Beckham, capitalising on an awful mistake by Burley, put United ahead.

Burley almost atoned immediately, setting up Gullit for a chance which led to John Spencer arrowing a volley towards goal. But there was Cantona, a yard off his own goal-line, to head away.

The feeling that it was to be United's day, which had seemed in doubt when Beckham and Cantona struck a post each in the first period, intensified when Roy Keane escaped being sent off for the second successive semi-final.

Keane, who was dismissed for stamping on Gareth Southgate on this ground a year ago - and was sent off playing for Ireland on Wednesday - appeared to strike Dennis Wise after the Chelsea captain had argued with Beckham. The referee, Steven Lodge, who had already booked Keane, took no action.

As the catalogue of incidents might suggest, it was a fabulous game, rich in excitement and with moments of high skill despite a beach of a pitch. That it was so open was partially due to the absence, through injury, of several defenders. Chelsea, already denied the influential Dan Petrescu, lost Steve Clarke and Terry Phelan during the tie. United, bereft of Denis Irwin and Gary Pallister, lost Steve Bruce shortly before kick-off with a thigh strain.

Initially his seemed the key absence. With Lee Sharpe constantly caught out of position by Gullit, United were prone to panic without Bruce's calming presence. On 13 minutes Clarke played a one-two with Gullit and lobbed just over. Two minutes later Michael Duberry, advancing down the same inside-right channel, chipped against the crossbar.

Not that United were being overrun: the game was end-to-end throughout. As early as the fifth minute Beckham had steered a Giggs cross against the near post; Giggs then twice went close, Cole failing to feed him on one occasion, the winger miskicking from Cantona's headed pass on another.

Then Hughes, in the inside-left position, clambered over Beckham and on to Spencer's flick. He crossed and there was Gullit, unmarked at the far post, to head in.

United reeled but, just before the break, gave a reminder of their potency as Cantona seized on a loose clearance and volleyed on to the post from 25 yards. Those Chelsea fans who interpreted it as a sign that fate was with them were to be cruelly disillusioned.

Nine minutes after the interval Philip Neville dribbled by Spencer on the right, Erland Johnsen could only flick on his cross and Cantona, at his favoured far post, headed back for Cole to touch in. Five minutes later Burley mis-hit an ambitious hitch-kick back-pass, Beckham ran on and, with Kevin Hitchcock committing himself early, slid the ball by him.

Then came Cantona's headed clearance, Keane's boxing impression, and three terrific saves. The key intervention came from Peter Schmeichel, with his legs from Wise after 76 minutes. He also denied Wise with his hands from Johnsen's cross in injury time.

Cantona was also frustrated when Hitchcock parried his close-range header, but in his case disappointment was only temporary.

Chelsea (3-6-1): Hitchcock; Duberry, Lee (Furlong, 87), Myers; Clarke (Johnsen, 38), Gullit, Burley, Wise, Spencer, Phelan (Peacock, 64); Hughes.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville, May, G Neville, Sharpe; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: Parker, McClair, Scholes.

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Chelsea: Myers. Manchester United: Keane, Butt.

Man of the match: Cantona.