Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers yesterday risked breaching Football Association rules governing discussion of officials before games, having been drawn into a debate about Luis Suarez which was initiated by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Responding to the Manchester United manager's comment that he hoped United would not be on the wrong end of a Suarez controversy tomorrow – in itself, a veiled message to match referee Howard Webb – Rodgers said that Webb was "a very good referee, well established in the Premier League and who refereed a World Cup final. I'm confident the game will be decided on quality and not a referee's decision."
Though the Liverpool manager, who received a warning earlier this season about his repeated comments about the way officials were handling Suarez, acknowledged that he must tread carefully, praising a referee before a match is an offence. Ferguson himself fell foul of the FA's disciplinary arm two seasons ago by talking up Webb as "definitely the best referee in the country" two days before the game against Chelsea. Fulham's Martin Jol has also fallen foul.
There is guaranteed to be a febrile welcome tomorrow for Suarez, who in last February's Premier League fixture at Old Trafford refused to shake Patrice Evra's hand, having been found guilty of racially abusing him. But as Liverpool's former director of football, Damien Comolli, who signed Suarez from Ajax for £22.8m in January 2011, suggested that "victimisation" of the Uruguayan could drive him out of English football, Rodgers insisted he had no intentions of discussing with the striker the importance of avoiding a flashpoint. "No. I think he needs to be natural. He needs to be free," Rodgers said.
The Livepool manager – who declared he would not swap Suarez for United's Robin van Persie, given the chance – said the Uruguayan had the mental faculty to shut out the extraneous controversies. "The background noise, he can park," he said. "When he goes on to the field, all the stuff that can get into people's minds, it's not a problem. His mental fitness is very good. He is only human, but he has the brain I believe to park things, which is part of what makes him world class."
Rodgers offered a withering response to the Mansfield Town chairman John Radford, who launched an extraordinary attack on Suarez over the handball goal which proved the difference between the two sides in last Sunday's FA Cup third round tie. "I knew the Mansfield chairman had had a few drinks in him. But you can tell from the reaction of some players and people in the game this week [that he was being ridiculous]," Rodgers declared.
"Don't get me wrong. There are some sports, snooker or golf for example, where the etiquette is important. If you are playing snooker and you might touch the ball and the other player doesn't see it, you put your hand up. That's the etiquette of the game. That doesn't happen in football. It's just the way of the game worldwide – not just here. Suarez, unfortunately given what's happened in the past, is vilified for it. But does it make a difference to him? No. If anything, it's actually fuel for his mentality because he is so strong."
The 25-year-old striker does have a habit of delivering in hostile environments – October's 2-2 Goodison derby for example – and Rodgers disclosed an observation Jamie Carragher had made to him about the player, soon after he arrived as manager. "He said: 'Boss, you will be amazed by him,'" Rodgers related. "'It's every game that he performs in. What he is like against a team at the bottom of the table, he's like against Chelsea or Manchester City or Manchester United.' Jamie was absolutely spot-on. His level of performances were at such a high level and it's a massive credit to him how he prepares himself for games. This is a player who hurts badly when we lose."
Midfielder Nuri Sahin, who was on loan at Liverpool, has left Anfield and rejoined former club Borussia Dortmund on loan from Real Madrid.
Handshakes revisited: What happened last season
* Both sides will hope to avoid a repeat of the controversy of last February's league meeting at Old Trafford when they reconvene tomorrow. Liverpool forward Luis Suarez refused to shake hands with Patrice Evra following his eight-match ban for racially abusing the Frenchman.
The hostilities spilt on to the pitch when, after a foul was not awarded to Liverpool following a challenge on Suarez by Rio Ferdinand, players clashed and again in the tunnel at half-time. Wayne Rooney scored twice within the first five minutes of the second half to secure the points, despite a late consolation from Suarez.