Rafael Benitez yesterday threw himself into the latest round of mind games with Sir Alex Ferguson by claiming the Manchester United manager was running "scared" of Liverpool and that the champions were playing badly. On the eve of tonight's Champions League quarter-final with Chelsea, the Liverpool manager dismissed Ferguson's claims that the winner of the tie would be United's key challengers in the title race.
In what looked like another rehearsed argument – Part II of the "Rafattack" – Benitez responded with relish to Ferguson's point on Sunday night that the team that came through the Liverpool-Chelsea tie would be the leading challenger.
The Liverpool manager said the beaten team from Liverpool and Chelsea would be all the more fresh for not having to compete in the Champions League. As for Ferguson, he was just about as scornful as ever. "We have to concentrate on our team but he [Ferguson] likes to talk too much about other teams," Benitez said. "It is not mind games, he is a little bit scared.
"Clearly one of us, Chelsea or Liverpool will be focused on the league [having been eliminated]. They [United] will have a problem with that, it will be worse for them. He [Ferguson] will be supporting Liverpool [against Chelsea] because we are the biggest threat now [in the league]. If we continue in the competition we may be tired, but if we are not in it he knows we will be a threat.
"If Chelsea are not in the competition, they will be a threat [in the league]. So he will lose anyway. One thing is the momentum if you stay in the Champions League, but you also have to prepare the team for every single game. So clearly he will be supporting us. I'd like to be worried about both [competitions, Premier League and Champions League]. That means we will be continuing in the competition."
Later on, when pushed on how he viewed Ferguson's current state of mind, the Liverpool manager was scathing about United's current form. "I don't know [what Ferguson is up to] but you know my idea is to concentrate on my games," he said. "We have important games coming, but clearly you can see they [United] are not playing well so they feel the pressure."
In his programme notes for last Sunday's Aston Villa game, Ferguson was still trying to frame an unconvincing argument that United had been the better team in their 4-1 drubbing from Liverpool at Old Trafford. Asked straight out if he thought Ferguson was now worried about him, Benitez simply answered, "yes". He was more restrained than January's famous "this is a fact" rant at Ferguson, but there is clearly no love lost between the pair.
Benitez said the feud with Ferguson, like the one he had with Jose Mourinho, had begun once Liverpool had become a threat. "Before, I had a very good relationship with him [Ferguson]," he said. "I was with him in Switzerland for a coaches' meeting and we travelled on the same plane and spoke on the way. Everything was okay, but something changed.
"Maybe it was because we started winning. He wrote to me after Istanbul and was very polite, saying well done and talking about the tactics. He was very good. I think I wrote to him after Moscow. Normally we write to say congratulations and I think I did."
There is a decision to be made in midfield by Benitez, who must replace the suspended Javier Mascherano in the holding position alongside Xabi Alonso. Benitez is expected to opt for Lucas Leiva, who is yet to start consecutive games this season, and he downplayed the prospect of any surprises.
Yet, no sooner had he finished with Ferguson than he was on to Mourinho and his behaviour at Chelsea. The pair fell out at the end of the 2005-06 season around the time Mourinho made his second play to sign Steven Gerrard. Benitez would accuse Mourinho of having used Roman Abramovich's great wealth to buy their success, Mourinho would respond by saying he would have been sacked if he had won as little as Benitez. The issue of the "ghost goal" – Mourinho's description of Luis Garcia's 2005 Champions League semi-final winner – always rankled.
Yesterday, Benitez lavished praise on Guus Hiddink and his predecessors Luiz Felipe Scolari and Avram Grant while pointedly ignoring Mourinho. When he was pushed on this omission, he said: "These four managers are good managers but the other three [Hiddink, Scolari and Grant] are doing really well and I prefer this style." He added: "Mourinho is a good manager but each one decides how to approach the games and competitions so I like the style of Grant, Scolari or Hiddink. It's right for the game."
There was plenty in Benitez's mood to suggest he is bullish and confident, especially when he brushed aside fears that co-owner Tom Hicks' American sports group defaulting on a £355m loan might suggest future problems for Liverpool. Benitez said the new contracts given to Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt proved the club were still on a sound financial footing. He dismissed the statistic that Chelsea-Liverpool ties had always previously been won by the team that played at home in the second leg as a "coincidence".
As he prepared to face Chelsea, was Benitez enjoying himself? "I make mistakes because clearly I am human and will make mistakes, but I'm enjoying it inside. I like to do my job properly, so when I can see the teams are doing things well I'm really pleased. I like to do things that are perfect."Reuse content