FA CUP: SAINTS 0 - MAN UTD 4

EARLY SHOCK: Roy Keane's second-minute blast hits the back of the Saints net. Echo picture by Paul Collins.

EARLY SHOCK: Roy Keane's second-minute blast hits the back of the Saints net. Echo picture by Paul Collins.

First published in 04-05 Season Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Chief Sports Writer

DESPITE having to field a makeshift side against the might of Manchester United and sitting third from bottom in the Premiership, optimism is running high at St Mary's these days.

At 2-0 down at half-time, the stadium scoreboard was advertising ticket sales details for the replay if the tie ended in a draw!

Truthfully, even the most ardent of Saints fans would have struggled to believe Saturday would be their day and a semi-final place would be theirs when they saw the respective teams trot out.

United, smarting from their Champions League exit against AC Milan in midweek, intended to have all guns blazing and fielding their first-choice side.

Saints, with one eye on survival and a host of injuries - plus Nigel Quashie cup-tied - were forced to turn out virtually a second string team.

The entire regular Premiership midfield was missing, as was the right back.

It made the match as one-sided as we all feared.

Of course, now Saints are out of the FA Cup, the old adage of concentrating on the league kicks in, even though another semi-final would have been an amazing occasion.

Reality kicked in after just 86 seconds when United took the lead.

It was the last thing Saints needed. They had to keep it tight early on to retain even a slight chance.

But the early killer goal quickly arrived.

Saints failed to clear a low near-post corner and Roy Keane fired in a shot that deflected off the head of Peter Crouch and left Paul Smith with no chance.

From that moment, United were in control and Saints could rarely dispute their total domination.

Crouch and Henri Camara looked an occasional threat up front but, with United packing the centre of their midfield, Saints struggled to get any support to their strikers.

With Anders Svensson and Olivier Bernard having to tuck in to support Matt Oakley and Paul Telfer, and the full-backs understandably wary of going forward and leaving Saints exposed, it was never likely the gap was going to be bridged.

Tim Howard was extended once, when Svensson fired in at his near post on nine minutes, while Crouch threatened from the resulting corner.

But, with Wayne Rooney, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes in attack, United always looked to have goals in them.

Rooney hit the bar via a Smith save and headed the rebound wide on 23 minutes while Smith again denied Rooney, this time with the aid of the post, a minute before half-time.

United weren't to be denied and killed the tie off in first-half stoppage time when Rooney out-muscled Svensson and Martin Cranie on the by-line and pulled back to Van Nistelrooy, who set up Ronaldo to fire home his 12th goal of the campaign.

Any hope Saints had was now extinguished, but to make matters worse they let in a third three minutes after the break.

Some fairly slack defending allowed Van Nistelrooy to get in a shot, Smith only managed to block with his feet and the ball came out to Scholes, who slotted home.

United took their foot of the gas, Sir Alex Ferguson made a few changes and there was plenty of showboating as the visitors ran down the clock.

However, there was one last sting in the tail for Saints when United added a fourth goal with three minutes left.

Van Nistelrooy was given too much time on the by-line and crossed a beautiful ball to the far post where Scholes came steaming in to head his second goal of the game - his tenth of the season.

All in all, it was a disappointing end to a disappointing day.

In fairness to Harry Redknapp, there was little he could do.

With so many players out he fielded the best side he could, but, as he admitted, they had little chance of success against a hungry and strong United outfit.

The only consolation is that, with so many of the regular Premiership team missing, there aren't any more injuries to contend with and Saints' confidence won't have been dented by this setback - even though this was the first time in 83 competitive league and cup games at St Mary's that Saints had shipped four goals.

Redknapp & Co now have tunnel vision as to what they have to achieve ... culminating in United's return for the final game of the Premiership term on May 15.

Nine games to ensure survival. If they do that an FA Cup semi-final won't be missed.

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