If Liverpool move on from their current position of ascendancy to reclaim the league trophy after 19 years, history will cast Rafael Benitez's utterance at Liverpool's Melwood training ground yesterday as the work of a genius.
If Manchester United reel them in, then he will be another Kevin Keegan. Benitez was meandering through his weekly media briefing, discussing the vagaries of today's visit to Stoke, when, questioned about Sir Alex Ferguson's assertions published this week that Liverpool may choke on their title push, he pulled from his jacket pocket a handwritten list of grievances he had been harbouring against the Manchester United manager and calmly proceeded to assassinate him.
The Spaniard said that Ferguson and his staff's haranguing of match officials when they leave the bench at half-time was so severe that his side had resorted to "marking" members of the United bench and he advised Luiz Felipe Scolari to do the same when he arrives at Old Trafford tomorrow. "We know what happens every time we go to Old Trafford," Benitez said. "Mr Scolari needs to know so that maybe he can use zonal marking against the staff of United because they are always doing man to man with the referees when they go to the bench and especially at half-time. Other managers need to know this."
Benitez detailed four instances – against Hull City, Southampton last week, his own side last April and Portsmouth in the FA Cup last March – of what he sees as Ferguson's repeated attempts to influence referees, as well as football authorities with his criticism of scheduling.
"Only Mr Ferguson can talk about the fixtures, the referees and other things and nothing happens," Benitez said. "We need to know about the facts. I am not talking about my impression. But facts." He mocked the United manager's recent declaration that he will send staff to oversee the preparation of fixtures, which Ferguson believes are weighted against United. "[One] option is Mr Ferguson organises the fixtures and everything in his office and sends them to us," Benitez said. "Then everyone will know and no one can complain." The word from Old Trafford last night was that Ferguson was aware of Benitez's comments and, predictably enough the outburst, delivered after his own press conference, is known to have been a source of amusement to him.
After the cameras had stopped rolling, Benitez gave an indication that comments Ferguson made after Liverpool had defeated Chelsea 2-0 last October had niggled him, long before Ferguson told Inside United magazine that Liverpool were susceptible. "He has been talking about Liverpool since we beat Chelsea," Benitez said. "He said by us winning, we had done United a favour. I stayed very calm and very relaxed but he continued complaining about the fixtures."
Benitez, who was returning to a theme he last took up before his side's Old Trafford match last spring, insisted that he had not fallen into Ferguson's trap – just as Keegan did 13 years ago, when his side were ahead of United. "I don't think so," was all he would say when that suggestion was twice put to him – and as pieces of invective go this was certainly about as far away from Keegan's "I would love it" speech as you will get.
"Everybody can see that I am talking about facts," Benitez said – but by directly mentioning "mind games" three times, he betrayed a sense that he was trying a few out on Ferguson.
The rather stage-managed nature of Benitez's outburst also points heavily to it being some psychological game of his own in a vital week for Liverpool. Today's visit to the Britannia Stadium is precisely the kind of game Liverpool have failed to win this season – Stoke took a goalless draw from Anfield – and if they draw again United can move within two points of them with a game in hand if they beat Chelsea, and then Wigan on Wednesday night.
Liverpool rejected any suggestion that a Sky TV reporter had been asked to pose the question, but Benitez was certainly ready for it with his A4 sheet of paper. Given his ongoing struggle with the English language, there was bravery in this strategy.
Keegan-style outbursts are certainly not the Benitez way. When he discovered his club's owners had tapped up Jürgen Klinsmann last autumn he delivered the longest press conference sulk in recent Liverpool history and if he is trying to pump up his players then it is quite possible that Jamie Carragher has encouraged the strategy.
Carragher is a closet admirer of Ferguson and his mind games and he said recently that Liverpool have been indulging in a few of their own: "It will tell us that we've been doing something right."
Off camera, he also rejected suggestions that he was either putting pressure on his own players by stepping things up in this way, or risking a repeat of the consequences of publicly goading Didier Drogba before last season's Champions League semi-final, which ended up with Drogba scoring twice in Chelsea's win and giving him some back. "United are a very good team but I don't think Ferguson will score any goals," Benitez said. "We are under pressure because we are top of the table [not because of what I have said] and we want to win. That's it."
Benitez expressed disappointment that his contract negotiations have still not come to fruition.
He may bring in Fernando Torres today, he said, and he hopes to have Pepe Reina but will be without Xabi Alonso. In the bigger picture, that seemed rather beside the point.Reuse content