Football: Proud United fear no opponents

Respect is the common denominator as the last four teams go into the European Cup draw
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The Independent Online
IT WAS nearing midnight, somewhere in San Siro's labyrinthine network of corridors, and Peter Schmeichel was describing his joy at Manchester United's progress into the semi-finals of the European Champions' Cup.

A commotion approached, a rolling maul of big-shouldered men with taut faces surrounded by jostling television crews and journalists. Somewhere in the centre was Ronaldo.

It was a narrow corridor and, as the Brazilian's entourage reached Schmeichel's gathering they tried to edge him out of the way. Then they tried to push him towards the door. The Dane paused in mid-sentence, fixed the nearest heavy with a glare usually reserved for defenders, and growled: "Cool it".

The minder shrank back, the commotion hushed and, one-by-one, they meekly squeezed past the impassive goalkeeper. As Ronaldo edged by, he looked respectfully up at Schmeichel. It was the expression of a vulnerable young man under pressure, not a world superstar.

While one hopes Ronaldo is strong enough to cope with the unreasonable demands on him, and that he recovers his peerless brilliance, the incident highlighted United's poise on Wednesday night. Despite being over-run at times they never panicked and, in the face of considerable provocation, never lost their heads.

Roy Keane, himself no stranger to hot-headed reaction, typified United's collective cool with a commanding captain's lead. He was proudest, however, of the way David Beckham had kept his temper when, late in the game, Francesco Colonnese threw the ball at him. A year ago, as all England knows, Beckham would have retaliated.

"We knew their players would be hostile, try to intimidate us and try to get us sent off," said Keane, "but that incident showed we've come through that learning process.

"Having the ball thrown in your face is hard to take but, all fair play to Becks, he just walked away and that's what it's all about.

"There were a lot of crazy things going on in the game, lots of oranges and coins being thrown at us and they were diving and over-reacting. But the referee kept on top of it and we showed our maturity in how we handled it."

Alex Ferguson, whose pre-match call for a strong referee bore spectacular fruit, said: "We have learned lessons. This is still a young team but some of them have played 20-odd matches in the Champions' League in the last three years and that experience is vital."

So, too, have been Ferguson's summer additions. If Dwight Yorke starred in the first leg a fortnight ago, Wednesday was Jaap Stam's turn to shine.

Surprisingly quick off the mark for a big man, and more technically adept than his appearance suggests, he has brought an air of confidence to a United back-line which used to look ill-at-ease in Europe.

There has consequently been a solidity to their results during a European odyssey which has now lasted eight months. Unlike Dynamo Kiev and Bayern Munich, two of the other semi-finalists, United are still unbeaten in their 10 games and, while they have only won four, that is twice as many as Juventus, the other unbeaten survivors.

Today United will find out which team bar their way to the final. There are no make-weights but Juventus, despite seeking their fourth successive final appearance, may be the preferred opposition. They, too, are unbeaten in Europe and, as in their performance in Greece on Wednesday, have shown an impressive resilience. But they are in a period of change with Carlo Ancelotti trying to keep the departed Marcello Lippi's team together for Europe while planning his own XI for next season.

Dynamo Kiev, the only remaining team never to have won the competition, or even make the final for that matter, appear to have overcome the spring slump usually experienced by teams from the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian league leaders - they have won every title since independence - have both held onto their leading players and combated the effect of their prolonged winter break with a lengthy programme of friendlies. In Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko - who joins Milan in the summer - they have a front pairing to match that of Yorke and Andy Cole. Another concern for United is the inevitable complications of travelling to Ukraine, rather than western Europe.

Bayern Munich, like United, only finished second in their domestic league last season but they are now regarded as the biggest threat. United drew home and away with them in qualifying and, while lucky not to have won in Munich, could easily have lost at Old Trafford. They lead the Bundesliga by 14 points and underlined their form with the 4-0 demolition of Kaiserslauten away from home on Wednesday.

Whoever United get they will not fear them, but nor will they be feared. Respect is the common denominator at this level.

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