Rafael Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson have renewed their long-running feud ahead of Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford tomorrow.
Benitez hinted in the aftermath of Chelsea’s progress to the Europa League final on Thursday night that he thought Ferguson’s record in Europe was not as good as it could be, before his United counterpart hit back yesterday by claiming that the Spaniard “is very concerned about his own CV”.
Ever since Benitez was Liverpool manager there has been tension between the two, most notably during the 2008-09 season when Ferguson’s United just beat Benitez’s Liverpool to the Premier League title. The pair did not shake hands before the 2-2 draw in the FA Cup at Old Trafford in March this year, an incident Benitez said had been an “education” for him.
Tomorrow’s game might be the last between the two, with Benitez’s tenure as Chelsea interim manager due to finish at the end of this season. Benitez, then, did not miss an opportunity to make a pointed observation about a perceived weakness in Ferguson’s famous trophy haul – the fact he has been more successful in domestic than European football.
In Benitez’s pre-match press conference late on Thursday night, he was asked whether Ferguson was unpopular because he won so much. “In England,” was his swift reply.
“He is a top manager,” Benitez said, “and when you are with a top side and you have had more money than anyone for years then you can keep winning and you can keep talking.”
When asked whether Ferguson should have won more than his two Champions Leagues and two Cup-Winners’ Cups, Benitez said he did not know. “I think that it’s a top side and a top manager and that’s it, we will leave it there,” he said.
Ferguson, though, suggested yesterday that Benitez’s interest in his rivals’ achievements might be because of insecurity. “I think he’s very concerned about his CV,” said the Manchester United manager, “he refers to it quite a lot.”
United have already won the Premier League, and Benitez ascribed their victory to their relentless application rather than necessarily superior quality. “I think they have been more consistent than anyone so they deserve to win the title,” he said, “but are they better than Manchester City? I’m not sure. Are they better than Chelsea? I’m not sure. Have they been more consistent? Yes, so they deserve to win the title but still you can beat anybody in one game.”
Benitez disputed that mind games reflected anything deeper than the relative standards of the teams. “The main thing is the players and what they can do on the pitch,” he argued. “You like to talk about mind games but normally who can win the mind games? The team with better players. You cannot play mind games with a team at the bottom of the table because never will you win against them.
“Here you say, ‘Mind games, mind games’, but when you have a very good team you can play mind games with everyone because you can win. And we have a good team.”
Ferguson also admitted he is having a hard time keeping his players focused on their remaining games, and has had to threaten to cancel a team outing if they don’t win tomorrow.
“I never took into account all the [celebratory] things that happen,” he said. “The PFA award, our own player of the year awards, the parade and then [Nemanja] Vidic came to me last week and asked if the team could go to Chester races on Wednesday. And I said, without thinking, ‘Yeah, of course’. But then when you put all these things together you think, ‘What the hell?’ I hope they don’t forget there’s a game of football to be played. Now if they don’t win on Sunday I think that [trip to the races] would be cancelled.”
RACE FOR EUROPE
* Remaining games
CHELSEA Tomorrow Man United (a), Wed Tottenham (h), 11 May Aston Villa (a), 19 May Everton (h)
ARSENAL Today QPR (a), 14 May Wigan (h); 19 May Newcastle (a)
TOTTENHAM Today Southampton (h), Wed Chelsea (a), 12 May Stoke (a), 19 May Sunderland (h)
EVERTON Tomorrow Liverpool (a), 12 May W Ham (h), 19 May Chelsea (a)