Ferguson issues a red alert over Anfield cauldron

United manager feels that his side have had too many players sent off at Liverpool
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Sir Alex Ferguson has declared ahead of Manchester United's visit to Liverpool that his side have had a disproportionately high number of players sent off at Anfield – a product, he believes, of the effect of the highly charged atmosphere on referees.

"I know we've had a lot of players sent off there," said Ferguson, who may have Wayne Rooney available after the striker trained yesterday for the first time since sustaining a calf injury for England in Ukraine.

"Referees can find it difficult when Anfield is charged up – like it will be on Sunday." There have been five red cards in the past 11 visits, including Nemanja Vidic's in the corresponding fixture last season, to go with the one he received when so tormented by Fernando Torres in the Old Trafford fixture.

Vidic has declared that his three and half years at United leave him with nothing to prove going into a match in which he is likely to be up against Torres again. But Ferguson believes that Michael Owen will get a tough reception as he returns to Liverpool. "There have been very few players who have played for both clubs," Ferguson said.

"Paul Ince got a bad reception from our fans when he joined Liverpool [from Internazionale in 1997]. Michael may well get that again on Sunday. Paul had six seasons with us whereas Michael played for Liverpool for over a decade and the goals he scored for them mark him down as one of their best ever strikers. But I don't think anything will bother Michael. Everyone wants to be liked but I don't think it will bother him."

Ferguson assiduously avoided any talk of Rafael Benitez. Asked if he has sympathy for the Liverpool manager's current predicament – his owners are short of money and his side have lost successively to Chelsea, Sunderland, Fiorentina and Lyons in the past three weeks, he launched into a defence of Gareth Southgate, who was sacked by Middlesbrough in midweek. Ferguson predicted in pre-season that Liverpool would struggle to match the club record 86 Premier League points they attained in the last league campaign, though he resisted any temptation to elaborate on how little silverware Benitez's £232m gross spend has earned. "I'm not interested in that," he said.

But the hunger for a win on this occasion is as great as ever as United go in search of surpassing Liverpool's 18 titles and revenge for the two defeats in the league fixtures last season. "It is the kind of game when we came to our club 23 years ago, I thought, 'Yeah'," Ferguson said. "The first derby with them was round about New Year's Day, and I had a complete sense of the history of both teams. It has never changed in the 23 years. It's still a massive game as far as I'm concerned. It won't change. We are going into it in decent form, our form has been good, with good confidence in our play. But it is a derby and anything can happen."

Ferguson, whose response to a charge of improper conduct over the Alan Wiley case is awaited by the Football Association, did not feel that the referee Mike Jones was at fault for his decision to allow Sunderland's freak beach-ball goal. "I thought it was a goal. I thought these things counted. The wind can take the ball and you could say it was an outside agent. But when you see in the law what is laid down as an 'outside agent', it shouldn't have been allowed. When it happens as quick as that, what does the referee do?"