Mirror-image Ruud van Nistelrooy penalties proved too much for Portsmouth as Manchester United scrambled into the FA Cup fourth round with a 4-1 win at Old Trafford this afternoon.
The £18.5million Dutchman twice stepped up to hit the same corner, sending Shaka Hislop the wrong way on both occasions as Pompey's brave fightback was snuffed out with a late flurry.
Van Nistelrooy's first effort, quickly followed by a David Beckham free-kick, had threatened to sweep the Nationwide League promotion chasers away inside the first 17 minutes.
But Steve Stone's close-range effort set up a dominant second-half display from the visitors.
However, after chances to equalise had gone begging, van Nistelrooy stroked home his 20th goal of the season nine minutes from time before substitute Paul Scholes wrapped up a flattering win with an impish stoppage time chip.
Over the Christmas period, Gerard Houllier and Claudio Ranieri have both fallen foul of their desire to give all their first-team squad some match time, finding wholesale changes sometimes rob teams of the continuity which has brought them positive results in the past.
Sir Alex Ferguson is an old hand at the tactic though and, despite making seven alterations to the side who came back from the dead against Sunderland on New Year's Day, still turned out a team packed full of experience and capable of producing a devastating opening burst which threatened to dump Portsmouth out of the FA Cup before the competition had even begun.
It took United just four minutes to open their account against Harry Redknapp's Nationwide League high-flyers, by which time the visitors should already have been behind.
Shaka Hislop needed to make a smart save to deny van Nistelrooy as he took Kieran Richardson's lay-off in his stride but the former West Ham keeper was left stranded the next time he faced United's Dutch master.
Redknapp must have thought his side had snuffed out the danger when four defenders crowded round van Nistelrooy on the edge of the visitors' box.
Somehow, the former PSV man squirmed clear and laid a pass off to Ryan Giggs, whose first touch drew a rash challenge from Linvoy Primus, leaving referee Mike Riley with a straightforward penalty decision.
Van Nistelrooy exuded confidence as he strolled forward to take the kick, calmly sending Hislop the wrong way in most predictable fashion.
Even the backing of 9,000 travelling fans could not settle Portsmouth down and in the following half hour it was only United's poor finishing which prevented the visitors from being completely blown away.
Dealing with Beckham's dead ball delivery was the most glaring problem Pompey were encountering.
From corners and free-kicks, the England skipper was giving Hislop and his defensive colleagues nightmares.
It was no surprise when Beckham eventually found the target, dipping a 25-yard curler beyond Hislop's grasp to double United's lead inside 17 minutes.
Giggs wasted a couple of chances, Roy Keane was close to converting another and van Nistelrooy should have done better than blast straight into Hislop's arms from a Richardson cut-back as Portsmouth groggily tried to steady themselves.
Yet from the ultimate position of weakness, Pompey suddenly grasped a lifeline when, on a rare break, Svetoslav Todorov challenged Roy Carroll for a far post cross which eventually dropped perfectly for Stone to lash into the roof of the net.
Both Paul Merson and Keane found themselves surplus to requirements at the interval but it was the departure of the Portsmouth man which had the bigger impact, his replacement Vincent Pericard's direct style causing mayhem in the home ranks.
Pericard immediately evaded Rio Ferdinand's lunge to shoot at Carroll from an acute angle, then his physical prowess created the space from which Todorov's effort was fatally hindered by an abysmal bobble just as he was about to shoot.
In between, Matthew Taylor flashed a free-kick inches wide before Nigel Quashie wasted a golden chance when he raced free from Gary O'Neil's pass but fired well over with only an advancing Carroll to beat.
Even Ferguson could see the tide was turning against his team, throwing on Scholes for the inexperienced Richardson.
United never looked entirely comfortable after that but at least their midfield had started to tighten, reducing Portsmouth's attacking capability and providing their own platform to counter.
And when Hayden Foxe stupidly attempted to tackle van Nistelrooy as the Dutchman was dribbling aimlessly towards the by-line, the resulting spot-kick was despatched to ease United back into a dominant position.
The home fans still might have endured a frantic last few minutes had Todorov's close range effort not been ruled out for offside but Portsmouth deserved more than the late Scholes chip which flattered the home side.
Ruud van Nistelrooy savoured a 'great cup game' after his penalty double had
seen off Portsmouth 4-1 at Old Trafford.
An exciting FA Cup third-round game against the First Division leaders
provided a stern test for Sir Alex Ferguson's men despite them having opened up
an early 2-0 lead through the Dutchman and a David Beckham free-kick.
Steve Stone pulled one back for Pompey just before the interval and that
triggered a second-half revival before van Nistelrooy and Paul Scholes settled
the game late on.
And afterwards van Nistelrooy was pleased to have survived what he
acknowledged was a totally different kind of match to the Premiership.
He told Sky Sports: 'It was a good game, a real cup game. They did so well
today. We did not have an easy time but in the end it was a good result.
'We were in control in the first half and when they scored that was a bit
unfortunate but after the break we got things under control.
'The first half we played very well and created a lot of chances - overall
we're happy with the win.'
He added: 'When I came to England people said to watch how different the cup
games are - and they are, they're a great game to play in.'
Boss Ferguson was relieved to have made it into the draw for the fourth round
after admitting his players had gone to 'sleep' after Pompey scored.
He said: 'It looked as though it was going to be that (a comfortable win) in
the first half, but we went to sleep after they scored their goal and in the
second half they made it really hard for us and for a time it was nip and
Skipper Roy Keane had to be replaced in the first half after picking up a
hamstring strain - the extent of which will not be known until the morning - and
Ferguson conceded his loss had been significant.
'We missed Roy Keane. We got a bit casual with the ball but they got about
us. We were a bit lazy with the passing and movement.
'The disappointing thing is we only scored one goal from open play - we would
be looking for better than that - but it's the third round of the cup and we
just had to get through it.'
Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp said his side had been 'overawed' for the
first quarter of the game.
'We played very well in the second half, but in that first 20 minutes we
looked a bit overawed.
'But we settled down and and I thought we got on top for long spells in the
second half, and I thought overall we performed very well.
'I thought we needed to pass the ball better, we joined up in the second half
and played as we tend to play in the league and made a real game of it.
'It's a great lesson for the players to come here, you've always got to be on
Midfielder Steve Stone agreed Pompey had been too nervous in the early
'In the first 20 minutes we were giving the ball away too much but once we
got the ball back we settled.
'At 2-1 down we had nothing to lose and we knew if we could get a goal back
it may have been different and the crowd may have turned against them, but that
'We learnt that you've got to be a bit better than we've been today. If were
going to come in this league next year we can't give the ball away.'