Football: Neville has faith in fast learners

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There were no champagne corks popping in Manchester United's dressing- room on Wednesday night, nor on the flight back from Oporto after their 4-0 aggregate win. The mood was one of satisfaction rather than celebration. A European Cup semi-final with Borussia Dortmund, and a domestic championship campaign, were already on the minds of players and manager.

Gary Neville, who was excellent in Wednesday's goalless draw with Porto, despite carrying an ankle injury, said: "There was no jubilation afterwards. We were expected to go through and if we had not we could not have forgiven ourselves.

"Now it is the semi-finals and the Germans again. It is about time we beat them. They have some great players with experience of world and European finals and we will have to be at our best. As a young kid growing up I have only ever seen German teams dominating competitions.

"This team is learning all the time. We have experience in the right areas and we have a lot of young legs. We are also a quick team and that is the most important factor in European football.

"We can be as good as anyone and we will be as good as Juventus by the end of this season or the next. I am sick of hearing that these teams are better than us. Bobby Robson made the Porto players out to be something from a different planet."

Who plays host in the semi-final first leg on 9 April will be determined at noon today in Lausanne. The second leg a fortnight later has created a fixture problem for United. They were due to play Newcastle United on 23 April. That will have to be moved to either 16 April, giving Manchester United three games in eight days between the semi-final games, or 5 May, which would mean a championship run-in of four games in nine days. The European Cup final is in Munich on 28 May.

Already injuries are mounting with Neville and David Beckham, now carrying ankle knocks to add to the hamstring and thigh problems of Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole.

There is another worry as far as Europe is concerned: suspension. Under Uefa's well-meant but badly thought-out disciplinary system, a player could miss the final because of two yellow cards received seven months apart. That is Gary Neville's fear.

He was booked in Turin in September, the first of seven United players to be cautioned in the eight games they have played - the best record of the competition. A second booking would result in an automatic one- match suspension even if he has completed eight flawless matches inbetween.

"It is a scandalous rule," said Neville, who missed the Euro 96 semi- final under the same totting-up procedure. "I have been walking a tightrope since Turin."

With the current strict interpretation of the laws this seems harsh. While foul play has to be discouraged, bookings should be regarded as spent after four matches, rather like speeding convictions are spent after three years. Otherwise players are inhibited.

Alex Ferguson, the United manager, attributed his team's tentative start in Oporto to players being wary of tackling until they had worked out the referee's approach.

Dortmund, who have received 14 yellow cards in their campaign, including one red, will be missing Matthias Sammer in the first-leg. He, though, has been booked in two of his last three games and thus deserves the ban. Dortmund have lost only once in the cup, 2-1 at home to Atletico Madrid when Sammer was injured.

Even without him they have plenty of quality. Among their 17 internationals are four other members of Germany's Euro 96 squad: Jurgen Kohler, Stefan Reuter, Andreas Moller and Stefan Freund.

The other semi-final is a repeat of last year's final. It took penalties to separate Juventus and Ajax then and it could do so again. Juventus are favourites but Ajax showed in winning 3-2 after extra time at Atletico Madrid that the continuing break-up of their successful 1995 team has not dimmed their desire.

This is the sixth successive season in which an Italian side has made the last four of this competition. While United's achievement is substantial, the English game as a whole cannot crow about its quality until it approaches that record.