The usual psyops battle is under way ahead of Liverpool's visit to Manchester United on Sunday, with Rafael Benitez suggesting yesterday that Sir Alex Ferguson was being "clever" by demanding protection for Cristiano Ronaldo.
The inference from Benitez was there for all to hear: that the United manager is hoping referee Steve Bennett – whom he famously accused of failing to protect Ronaldo after sending the winger off in a Manchester derby defeat two years ago – will be influenced. "Ferguson is clever and has a lot of experience," Benitez said. "After a difficult game [Portsmouth in the FA Cup] he was talking about referees, and before an important game [Sunday's] he is talking about protecting Ronaldo. The referees, though, have experience and they will know Ferguson. This kind of treatment must be the same for all the teams and all the players."
Ferguson has not let the issue of protection rest ahead of Liverpool's arrival to play a side Benitez has never overcome as Liverpool manager. "I will continue to hammer away at the need for protection for football's most skilful players," the United manager said before Wednesday's match against Bolton.
"The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, recently complained that his team are on the receiving end of more fouls than any other. I'm not so sure about that but what I do know is that Cristiano Ronaldo must be one of the most fouled players in the League. Too many opponents don't know how to tackle properly."
Benitez suggested he did not know what all the fuss was about – "I don't know what he [Ferguson] was thinking about exactly," he said – and he certainly feels Ronaldo has no tougher a time of things than his own prime asset, Fernando Torres. The Spaniard, with the 20-goal- a-season target last hit by Robbie Fowler 12 years ago under his belt, goes into the match in arguably an even richer vein of form than Ronaldo, who reached a milestone of his own by overhauling George Best's 32-goal record on Wednesday night.
Though Ferguson's suggestion that Ronaldo will leave for Spain if he continues to be kicked seems farfetched, Benitez did not disagree that La Liga is less physical. "It's more physical in England, the supporters here enjoy that style of play, and you have to accept that," he said. Benitez would not be drawn into agreeing that Ronaldo might be reaching Best's heights, though he did say he would be in his dream starting XI.
* Europe's governing body, Uefa, has fined Lyons €3,200 [£2,500] after a fan aimed a laser pen at Cristiano Ronaldo during Manchester United's Champions League game at Stade Gerland on 20 February.