Calculated assault or wild outburst? Sign of growing confidence or sudden panic? Even some who witnessed Rafael Benitez's uncharacteristic rant about Sir Alex Ferguson on Friday seem unsure. But the Liverpool manager was certainly speaking from the position of strength offered by the League table, guaranteeing that whatever else he was accused of, sour grapes could not be on the charge sheet. Last night the Football Association announced that they would be looking into the affair to form an opinion of their own.
The only shame for those of us who find these things as diverting as some of the actual football is that Manchester United stage their media conferences a couple of hours before Liverpool's, which meant that there was no opportunity for Ferguson to respond.
The reaction from inside Old Trafford yesterday was said to be extremely relaxed, thefeeling being that the manager will choose his moment and that however hard TV interviewers try – or not – after today's game there, the immediate aftermath of a crucial meeting with Chelsea will not be that time.
That has been the pattern in the past. Ferguson's most wounding shots at Arsenal in the rivalry with Arsène Wenger tend to have been held back until some time after events like "Pizzagate" and the wild scenes as Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty that Arsenal felt should never have been given.
Just occasionally, as with Wenger's "everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home", Ferguson takes a punch. But generally, as in all other matters, opposing managers have to bow to the experience of a man who began the rough old trade as long ago as July 1974. That is an awful lot of press conferences.
Benitez, like the naïve Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, the terse Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn and the more urbane Wenger, has made the bold decision to take Ferguson on, and in his own distinctive way. Uncharacteristic in a sense and yet as thorough as any of his meticulously planned practice sessions or team talks. "Small details" form an important part of Benitez's belief system. "Facts, not impressions," he emphasised on Friday, before reading out a selection of them in a manner that did not threaten Fiona Bruce's employment prospects.
Of his two sets of criticisms, the one concerning referees was more valid and more telling than the other, on fixtures. In comments on officials, the leading managers tend to fall into two camps: those, like Benitez and Luiz Felipe Scolari, who acknowledge the difficulty referees face and, with only an occasional lapse, try their hardest to avoid bad-mouthing them; and those, like Ferguson and Wenger, who are by no means averse to making their feelings plain. Often this is to the official's face, which makes it easier to punish; often it is through the media, which can produce a more complex case.
On the subject of fixtures, however, Benitez is on weaker ground, just like virtually every other manager who has ever opened his mouth on the subject – including United's. Fixtures are like injuries, refereeing decisions, the bounce of the ball and all the other random aspects of the sport: some go for you, some against you, and if they do not balance out over the course of a single season, they will in time.
Matches are decided by a computer, not a malevolent Premier League official who has it in for United, Liverpool or anyone else. They are then at the mercy of TV companies who pay millions of pounds for the privilege of making a team and their fans turn out at Portsmouth or Sunderland on a Saturday lunchtime after coming back from a Champions' League game in the Ukraine a couple of days earlier.
In the example Benitez gave, it was television, not Ferguson, decreeing that United played Middlesbrough on the Monday after Christmas and not the Sunday like Liverpool; or the Tuesday like Aston Villa. Swings and roundabouts.
Whether the Merseyside challenge keeps whirling merrily on or grinds to a halt over the next few months will determine whether their manager comes to be regarded as a sage or a managerial ingenue. In the meantime, he has just confirmed Manchester United against Liverpool at Old Trafford in March as a box-office bonanza for Sky Sports.Reuse content