Manchester City's Patrick Vieira has re-opened the verbal warfare with Sir Alex Ferguson which his club's manager Roberto Mancini is so desperate to avoid, by declaring that Manchester United are given an unfair advantage by referees.
Vieira equipped Ferguson with ammunition eight days ago by claiming that the return of Paul Scholes to United's side was a sign of "weakness" and though there were signs after Ferguson declared City's recall of Carlos Tevez as even more "desperate" that Mancini and his assistants did not welcome the distraction, Vieira ploughed in again yesterday.
"When United play at home they get some advantage that other teams don't get," City's football development executive told the BBC. "I think when you go to United, Madrid, Barcelona, or Milan, when the referees referee these kind of games, it's always difficult to go against these kinds of teams. This is the way it is."
But a sense of how desperate City and Mancini are to avoid the distraction of an off-field conflict with United and their manager emerged last night when Vieira issued an excoriating statement accusing the BBC reporter Dan Roan of taking his comments out of context, in a "serious and cynical" attempt to misrepresent him.
Vieira, who spoke to the BBC on behalf of the Football Against Hunger charity, said: "I made it clear in the interview twice that I wanted to avoid criticising United and even stated that I didn't watch the United game against Fulham and had not seen the incident to which the reporter referred. That part of the interview was ignored and my comments were taken completely out of context. I called the reporter twice to ask for a retraction and an apology which has not come."
Ferguson may still respond today at his weekly press conference to comments which appear to have roots in the strong 89th-minute penalty claim from Fulham's Danny Murphy which referee Michael Oliver turned down – allowing United to open a three-point lead at the top of the Premier League on Monday night.
Vieira was bullish about City's prospects: "This is our moment. Since the start of the season we've been the best team and played the best football. I believe the club deserves it. [But] when you are first you have the advantage, they are favourites."
The former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who ran United close in 2009, also said yesterday that so-called "mind games" do not win titles and that the best way to challenge United now is to shut out anything but football.
"The main thing I would say is to focus on your job – it's about good players and a good team," Benitez said. "I was not following this argument between them. I know that it depends on the players more than the managers. The good thing when you are at this stage of the season is just to concentrate on your team and your performance."
Rio Ferdinand, who discussed United amicably with Benitez at Soccerex yesterday, tweeted: "Why is Viera [sic] so concerned with Man Utd....2 comments in a week or so... c'mon maaaaaan let it go!"
Benitez contributed to a verbal battle with Ferguson in January 2009, by producing a handwritten list of "facts" which included his own assertion that referees are intimidated by the Glaswegian. "To be fair, my press conference, that was because I knew it was the right time to do it," Benitez said. "And afterwards we won 11 games – so people were like, 'Yeah, Rafa [was to blame].' That was not true. [United] were just winning more games than us, that's it." Liverpool did indeed finish strongly – winning 12 out of 18 Premier League games, including a 4-1 win at Old Trafford, and the last five of the 2008-09 season. It was the four drawn games immediately after Benitez's "facts" press conference which proved decisive for a side which had been eight points clear of United, having played three more games, at the time.
Benitez said City could take strength from their 6-1 win at Old Trafford last autumn, in the way that Liverpool did from their 4-1 win in 2009. "I have seen City all year and they have done well. They have the quality, they have the experience and they have the character so for me they don't need too much. It's just to say, 'We are good enough, we will win'."
Mancini, who began yesterday with a pitch-side altercation with Mario Balotelli at Carrington, could at least welcome back Vincent Kompany to training yesterday. Joleon Lescott trained alone with a physio, trying to shake off a groin problem. Carlos Tevez and Owen Hargreaves played for the reserves in their 6-1 win at Morecambe last night.