So now it is all out war. The increasingly fractious relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez deteriorated yet further yesterday when the Manchester United manager implied that his adversary should have been concentrating on the Champions League tie against Chelsea, which they lost 3-1, rather than attacking him for commenting on which club presented the biggest threat to United's title
"The interesting thing as far as Rafa Benitez is concerned is that he's got a European tie and he's talking about Alex Ferguson. Fantastic! I didn't know I was that important," the United manager said, behind a barely concealed smirk. Asked if he felt the pressure of a title race was getting to the Liverpool manager, Ferguson again let his expression do the talking. "I have no more comment to make," he said.
Benitez was indignant, on the eve of Wednesday's Chelsea match, that Ferguson had suggested the winner of that game presented the greater domestic threat but Ferguson defended his decision to say so. "If you ask me a question about other teams I'll give you an opinion. There's no fault in that," he said. "Arsène Wenger was talking about Manchester United a couple of weeks ago [calling them 'untouchable'] which I tried to dampen down as much as I could because I know the dangers of that. He was asked a question and he gave a fair answer."
The manner of Chelsea's win seems to have persuaded Ferguson that his initial prognosis was correct. He compared it yesterday to the legendary Ryan Giggs goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay. "From then on we were unbeatable," he said. "Hopefully Chelsea are beatable but they will be absolutely buoyed up now. You saw the celebrations at the end. They knew it was an emphatic result. I think they'll be flying at the moment. They played very well."
In a CNN interview, Ferguson has indicated that he may be around to joust with Benitez for as many as three more years, to fulfil a prime remaining aim of winning more European Cups.
"If there was one challenge, I would love the club to win more European trophies than they have done and I don't think we've won the number we should have won," he said. "Therefore if we could just win a couple more European trophies then I would definitely quit." He later referred to staying on "another two or three years... as long as I can."
Though it might not seem like it, Arsène Wenger is the individual Ferguson's considers his prime adversary. "If you take Chelsea – they've had three managers in the past three years, Liverpool have had seven managers in the time I've been here. No one has survived as long as Arsène."
Ferguson's side could be two points behind Liverpool, who play at lunchtime today, when they kick off against Sunderland, with another depleted squad. Rio Ferdinand only started running yesterday so will not be fit until Wednesday's encounter in Porto at the earliest and Jonny Evans (groin) is doubtful, which would mean John O'Shea starting at centre-back and Gary Neville, painfully short of match fitness, at right-back – the same combination that Aston Villa threatened last Sunday. Wayne Rooney's midweek rib knock was minor and will not keep him out today, while Dimitar Berbatov may also be ready for Porto.
Revealingly, Ferguson also said that the defeat against Liverpool had had a psychological bearing, despite his players' insistence that confidence is not an issue. "It's a strange situation," he said. "The shock of losing those terrible goals against Liverpool certainly has had an effect. But there is always a watershed and I think conceding that late goal against Porto on Tuesday was it because the players were gutted."