Like his team, Rafael Benitez is beginning to exert serious pressure on Sir Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager's latest lambasting of his Spanish rival is proof that Ferguson is genuinely concerned about Liverpool's challenge to the champions' defence of the Premier League.
It is clear that there is no connection between the men, unlike the recognition of a kindred spirit that underpinned Ferguson's jousts with Jose Mourinho, or the mutual, if initially grudging respect which has come to mark his relationship with Arsène Wenger. But if Liverpool were floundering Ferguson would simply ignore Benitez, or dismiss him like he did when the Liverpool manager read out his catalogue of "facts" earlier this season. Instead they are pushing United hard, hard enough for Ferguson, on the eve of a critical match in an unrelated competition to launch this unprompted attack.
Was Benitez disrespecting Sam Allardyce at Anfield last week? Only he knows, but the video evidence suggest he will be as surprised as anyone by Ferguson and Allardyce's comments. Had the latter two conspired before their press conferences yesterday? Ferguson says not, but he and the Blackburn Rovers manager would have spoken during the week, and one of them almost certainly would have then said to the other, "Did you see what he did?" Is it bad for football? The verbal dispute is becoming somewhat tawdry, but it is also part of the cut and thrust of the game and in an increasingly sanitised PR world the media should be the last to complain.
Benitez does prompt strong reactions. One manager switched off on Tuesday night when it looked as if Liverpool would overhaul Chelsea because he could not face the thought of watching Benitez triumph. But Ferguson has his enemies too. Driven, successful men usually do, especially in an environment where there can only be a few winners and the losers are often fired.
The question which hangs in the air is, what effect will this have? After Benitez began the verbals with his "facts" Liverpool drifted off the pace. Now it will be United's players, in their hotel rooms this morning, leafing through the papers and asking, "what's the gaffer up to now?"
It is a distraction they could do without. Wednesday's victory in Portugal should have restored Manchester United's swagger, but suddenly it seems that while Ferguson stirs the pot it is Liverpool who are driving the plot.