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Aidy Boothroyd's line about victory here equalling the shock of the moon landing might have needed a tweak involving Man setting up house on Mars if Watford, the Premiership's bottom club, had actually managed to knock out the Premiership leaders. Instead, the team whose warm-up for this tie was the midweek demolition of Roma in the Champions League reached the first FA Cup final at the revamped Wembley, in front of a crowd that rolled and rocked Villa Park.

United's eighteenth appearance in the showpiece event came thanks to a scintillating Wayne Rooney display that included two goals and allows United's fans to keep dreaming that the 1999 Treble can be emulated. It also means the neutral might hope that when Chelsea meet Blackburn this afternoon in the second semi-final, Jose Mourinho's men will prevail. That would set up the middle one of three possible meetings between the clubs that could decide the FA Cup, Premiership and Champions League - an unprecedented finish to a season that already should linger in the memory.

So pleased was Sir Alex Ferguson that he actually attended the post-match press conference. 'I'm very happy. You should feel the atmosphere in the dressing room right now. We've told Cristiano Ronaldo and Gabriel Heinze they'll see just how special it is at Wembley with all the fans outside waiting for them.'

The Portuguese winger began on the right in the same fluid 4-2-3-1 formation as Tuesday, with Paul Scholes in for Darren Fletcher and Patrice Evra instead of John O'Shea. That had Wayne Rooney on the left behind Alan Smith, a decision that had the best endorsement when the former scored after six minutes.

'I thought he was just out of this world today. Full of aggression and running everywhere,' added Ferguson. The opener came when Rooney turned Adrian Mariappa and let fly from the left angle of the area to beat Richard Lee on the near side, a result that should disappoint the keeper, who was standing in for the ineligible Ben Foster.

This presaged a sticky period in which United harried, were allowed too much space inside their opponents' half and forced Lee to miskick clearances. But, with their first moment of real pressure, Watford picked up some hope.

Hameur Bouazza, Watford's best player, hassled Wes Brown to win a free-kick. A corner resulted, from which Edwin van der Sar offered the first of various weak punches. The Dutchman was then involved in a mix-up with Rio Ferdinand that led to Watford's equaliser. Last week at Portsmouth a similar breakdown had yielded an own goal from the United No 5. Here, they got in a tangle that also involved Watford's central defender, Clarke Carlisle. This injured the United keeper. From the restart, Tommy Smith eventually received the ball inside the area and found Bouazza. The French striker's left-foot volley was impressive, but took a telling deflection off Gabriel Heinze.

That was in the 26th minute and parity lasted around 120 seconds. Rooney exchanged passes with Alan Smith down the right, then advanced and advanced on Lee. His pass, always meant for Ronaldo, bobbled off the keeper. United's darling was hardly going to miss from two yards.

This frantic start was evidence of the game's openness, which was great for the fans, but until Ferdinand's removal through injury five minutes before the break hardly the best for Watford's chances of defeating a side who just love to attack. Rooney, in particular, took advantage, offering a reminder of the buccaneering talent that has been evident only in flashes this season - a remarkable 50-yard diagonal pass around the half...#8209;hour that took out Watford's defence was particularly memorable.

Now came the restart and Watford's best chance. United at first struggled to adjust to the midfielder Darren Fletcher slotting in at right-back and Van der Sar still appeared to be troubled from the effects of Carlisle's challenge. Bouazza had a shot, was nearly played in by Gavin Mahon and then had a searing run down the left that frightened the rejigged rearguard.

It was Rooney, though, in what was his best performance this season, who confirmed the win with a finish just a little farther out than Ronaldo's. There was even time for Kieran Richardson to chip sweetly beyond Lee. Both had been put in by the excellent Smith.

'I'm disappointed because I thought we had a bit of a chance and I am a dreamer, but it wasn't to be,' was Boothroyd's verdict. If he felt his side might have closed down United a little better then he was not saying. Roma were also guilty of not pressing enough.

Chelsea, of course - still on for the Quadruple - will not allow any kind of freedom. Should they make it to Wembley, then the last two clubs to win the Cup at the old Wembley will compete in the first final at the new one. But they could well have other glories in mind.

United six points clear of Chelsea

April 18, 2007 Edition 3

LONDON: Wayne Rooney steered Manchester United to a 2-0 victory over Sheffield United that sent them six points clear at the top of the Premier League last night.

Manchester United were seeking to keep the pressure on second-placed Chelsea, who face West Ham United today, and took a fourth-minute lead through midfielder Michael Carrick.

Rooney made sure of the points five minutes into the second-half, lashing the ball home after a fine move.

Arsenal climbed to third with a 3-1 home victory over Manchester City in the night's other game.

Manchester United are on 81 points from 33 games while champions Chelsea have 75 from 32. Arsenal have 62 from 34 matches, one point ahead of Liverpool who play Middlesbrough today.

Meanwhile, Frank Lampard expects Chelsea to shrug off the strains of their gruelling schedule and come out with all guns blazing as they try to keep the pressure on Premiership leaders Manchester United.

Jose Mourinho's side are still on course for an unprecedented quadruple after their herculean efforts against Valencia and Blackburn Rovers last week.

But there is no let up in Chelsea's hectic fixture list.

The reigning English champions managed to haul their weary bodies through extra-time to see off Blackburn in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final, just five days after snatching a dramatic Champions League win in Valencia.

Manager Mourinho insists he has few options to rest his key players, so the likes of Lampard, Didier Drogba, John Terry and Michael Essien will have to find a way to battle through the pain barrier over the final month of the campaign.

With so much at stake, England midfielder Lampard has no doubts his team-mates will rise to the challenge of going head to head with Manchester United, who they also face in the FA Cup final.

The Mercury
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