Benitez's rant fuels fire within Ferguson

Liverpool manager's outburst has only added to his United counterpart's desire to beat bitter rivals, writes Ian Herbert

Rafael Benitez says he will hold out a hand to Sir Alex Ferguson when they meet today, 64 days after the Spaniard took a handwritten list of grievances from his jacket pocket and proceeded to launch a public character assassination on the Manchester United manager. If he gets a conciliatory gesture back, expect it to be offered through gritted teeth.

Superficially, Ferguson is all laid back insouciance where Liverpool and Benitez are concerned, but there was a palpable sense yesterday of how the so-called rant has affected him when he offered a few of the acerbic asides which have become unusually scarce as United's grip of the Premier League has tightened and threats receded. "I would need to read more of Freud before I could really understand all that," Ferguson said of Benitez's words. "I don't know where it came from and I'm not really interested. It never bothered me and it doesn't bother me now."

Benitez has taken up from Arséne Wenger the mantle of the introspective continental whom Ferguson does not comprehend and whom he has come to fear. Ferguson's tart response, when asked about Benitez's disinclination to celebrate goals, revealed as much, too. "My instinct is to celebrate a goal because I'm a football man. That is what football supporters do."

Ferguson might have been distracted from Merseyside by the challenge of Arsenal in the 1990s and then Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, but there is history where Liverpool is concerned and no-one cherishes his football history more than Ferguson.

Their 18 league titles and the chance to "knock them right off their perch" as Ferguson memorably put it, give or take the odd expletive, seven years ago is the target he has always had in his sights, and when these giant clubs collide at Old Trafford today there is a chance to take an almighty step towards equalling that tally.

Asked how it felt to have once been on the receiving end of their dominance Ferguson cast his mind back to the Anfield dressing room where he sat down his Aberdeen side, halfway to a 4-0 European Cup drubbing in November 1980. "One of my players said 'come on lads, two quick goals and we're back in it'," Ferguson remembered, grinning. "They'd only lost 19 goals in three years at home," and then the killer line: "It was a great Liverpool team then."

For two months last autumn it seemed like the great adversarial battle was back on again. Ferguson revealed that he had always believed Chelsea would not progress much this season. "I thought Chelsea are not going to improve a great deal because of the ages of the team, they're going to be much the same," he said, returning to a theme which he first raised in South Africa this summer. Ferguson felt Arsenal were "improving" but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Liverpool were the side he feared when Benitez delivered his outburst at Melwood.

"Are they under pressure?" Benitez asked that day. Very possibly yes. United were seven points behind Liverpool at the time, albeit with two games in hand, and Benitez had also declared that if they were top at Christmas – as they were – they would be 80 per cent of the way towards a 19th title.

Liverpool's implosion since then led Ryan Babel to conclude that they had "almost thrown the title away" and if United prevail today they will extend their lead to 10 points with a game in hand. Benitez insists he does not regret the rant but a close look at the clubs' respective squads should have told him he ran the risk of hubris. Benitez was talking yesterday about Liverpool's difficult encounters with Stoke City the day after he spoke out. Steven Gerrard hit the post at Anfield late on in a 0-0 draw which has typified their pitiful failure to break down modest sides. Coincidentally, Ferguson talked about United's visit to the Britannia Stadium two weeks earlier. United had just returned exhausted from the World Club Cup in Japan but they ground out a win.

Benitez, who still has no deadline in place for the resolution of contract talks with his club's owners, also pointed to the financial gulf between the two clubs. "The difference between us is maybe £100m spent on players and a big stadium," he said, and spoke of the wholesale change needed right throughout the club for Liverpool to compete with United.

But all hope is not lost. Just when it seemed to be, the 4-0 midweek win over Real Madrid has revived memories of Liverpool's autumn promise. The club's fans may be disappointed to know that Benitez does not believe the high tempo tactics which worked against Real can be repeated every week in the league. "Normally, when you approach a game at Anfield the other teams defend from the start of the game. You have to be very precise. It's not just a question of determination and high tempo," Benitez said. But Benitez believes United, with their footballing ambition, may mirror Real's attacking intent and offer Liverpool more space. "Clearly we will try to play at the same level," said the Spaniard, who has Fernando Torres fit. "We will try to start the game in the same way." Liverpool's 2-1 win over United at Anfield in September suggests they finally have the beating of Ferguson's side.

Ferguson also merrily recited one of his favourite old sayings. "Ney cast a clout 'til May is out," – don't shed you winter woolies too early. But Old Trafford will be warm enough today, the more because of Wayne Rooney's declaration that he has always "hated" Liverpool. Ferguson tried to toss away that controversy. "The word 'hate' is not used the right way. Everyone uses the word hatred because it is easy to say. I hate this, I hate that. Nobody uses dislike. 'Hate' doesn't mean a lot." It does where Ferguson and Liverpool are concerned. Lunchtime today marks his moment to make a huge step in his 20-year mission to catch them up.

Murphy's law: Reds at Old Trafford

*Liverpool have struggled at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, winning just three of 17 league and cup games against Manchester United. All three victories came courtesy of a sole Danny Murphy strike, during a four-year purple patch.

*17 December 2000 Man United 0 Liverpool 1 (Murphy 43)

*22 January 2002 Man United 0 Liverpool 1 (Murphy 85)

*24 April 2004 Man United 0 Liverpool 1 (Murphy 63 pen)

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