Northampton stopper fails to keep out United
Northampton 0 Manchester United 3
Manchester United's army of supporters produced a show of defiance for under-fire manager Alex Ferguson as their team advanced into the fifth round of the FA Cup with a deserved win against Third Division Northampton.
While Mikael Silvestre's first-half strike, a Chris Hargreaves own goal after the interval and a close-range Diego Forlan effort ensured the visitors were never in danger of suffering the biggest shock in the competition's history, the United fans were eager to show which side of the fence they sit on in the ongoing dispute between their manager and major shareholder John Magnier which erupted in the media today.
Aside from delivering a four-letter tirade towards the Co Tipperary racehorse owner, they declared their devotion to Ferguson from the terraces in no uncertain manner. While it will not be of much help to Ferguson should the dispute end in the almost previously unthinkable prospect of him ending his 17-year stint with United, the Scot will no doubt hope he receives the same kind of backing from the club's board.
In the meantime he will continue plotting the path to more silverware, although he will hope not to come across as many inspired performances as that which Lee Harper produced at Sixfields today.
The Northampton keeper denied United on half a dozen occasions including turning away Forlan's early penalty and must surely have attracted the attention of a host of higher ranked clubs.
Northampton, beaten so comprehensively on the Red Devils' last visit in 1970, were hoping to make a solid start but even they could not have imagined the boost they would receive after just three minutes. Ronaldo's terrorising of the Cobblers' defence started early as he panicked Greg Lincoln into manhandling him as he attempted to reach a Quinton Fortune cross.
Referee Steve Bennett had no hesitation in awarding the spot-kick but Forlan, needing to impress following Saha's arrival, saw his penalty saved by Harper's full-length save. The home defence scrambled away the rebound to begin what was to be a mixed afternoon for the Uruguayan forward.
Home attacks were sparse but pacey frontman Derek Asamoah might have regarded himself unlucky to find stand-in keeper Roy Carroll directly in line when Martin Smith lifted a pass over the visitors' defence to his strike partner.
Carroll made a brave block and the rebound cannoned into Asamoah and trundled out for a goal-kick.
It proved to be the last chance Northampton would have to take the lead, although United's opener was a scrappy affair. Ronaldo provided the dangerous cross which home skipper Paul Reid attempted to reach at full stretch.
Reid could only turn the ball towards Harper, who at such close range was unable to prevent the ball rolling towards Silvestre who tapped home.
Wes Brown, beginning what he hopes will be a lengthy stint in the United line-up as Ferdinand begins his eight-month ban for missing a drugs test, almost flicked home a second before the interval but Chris Hargreaves realised the danger and hacked away after the England international appeared to have sent Ronaldo's cross rolling into the corner.
Cobblers boss Colin Calderwood introduced Marc Richards at the interval and the striker did come close to beating Carroll with a powerful volley which crashed off the bar. Unfortunately for the home side, by that stage United were two in front for within two minutes of the re-start Hargreaves had turned Ronaldo's corner into his own net after it had bounced off Bellion.
The United fans had taken to singing `We will only sit down when Diego scores', although whether that was a show of support for the errant striker is doubtful.
Still, they celebrated the South American's goal with glee when he eventually tapped home Darren Fletcher's nod back midway through the second period. There would have been more goals before the end had it not been for Harper.
The former Arsenal keeper tipped Kieran Richardson's shot on to the bar and then acrobatically clutched a Forlan effort which looked destined for the top corner. Smith came close for the home side in the dying stages when his free-kick was tipped round the post by Carroll but there was to be no consolation for the plucky Cobblers.