Ahead of the kind of high octane weekend Sir Alex Ferguson can expect, it sounds dangerously like tempting fate but the Manchester United manager has waded into the debate on protection of referees by claiming that his side affords them a respect which is lacking at Arsenal and Chelsea.
Ferguson did not allude directly to his prime challengers in the Premier League race, nor to Ashley Cole's midweek conduct, in his response to the suggestion that the two London clubs' players are intemperate by comparison with his own and Liverpool's. But he argued, with some volition, that things have been different at United – on the pitch at least – since the episode eight years ago in which Andy D'Urso was virtually chased towards the corner flag after awarding Middlesbrough a penalty at Old Trafford. "That was a pivotal moment," Ferguson said. "I think the haranguing of referees is absolutely ridiculous and it's not right. We tell [players] to shake the hand of the referee at the end of the game. The other night I saw one of our players swapping shirts with a Bolton player who'd fouled him about 10 times. I thought that was good. Life moves on."
Judging by his own response to defeat at the Reebok and the FA Cup defeat by Portsmouth, Ferguson's comments may raise as many eyebrows as Roy Keane did when he insisted earlier this season that "referees get scrutinised left and right and players aren't helping them." It was he who led the charge against D'Urso that day. "We wouldn't have chased him if he hadn't backed away so far," he said afterwards.
There will certainly be few greater tests of Ferguson's principles than Liverpool's arrival at Old Trafford for a match refereed by Steve Bennett – the man once accused by Ferguson of revelling in the dismissal of Cristiano Ronaldo, whom the United manager claims to be in need of more protection.
Ronaldo does not always live up to his billing on these fiercely intense occasions, but Ferguson also provided an intriguing insight yesterday into the asset which has done most to help the Portuguese prosper. Speed with the ball at his feet – a quality which invites comparison with Maradona, Ferguson suggested – is the cause of defenders' problems. "That's the thing that bemuses defenders," he said. "He's probably just as quick running with the ball as he is without it. There have been a few players like that in the past."
To that point, Ferguson might have added Ronaldo's ability to morph between the role of left and right winger. "I'd not thought of that," he said when it was put to him that neither his right nor left foot is the weaker and Ferguson also had to confess that the player's drift from flank to flank was not managed. "I have absolutely no control over that, none at all," he said. "That's the great thing about expression and individuality. If he's taking a corner from the left-hand side or maybe takes a run in the centre or towards the penalty box and the game breaks down, he sometimes just carries on wandering to the left-hand side."
Tomorrow's match – as critical for United in their bid to maintain a three-point lead over Arsenal which Ferguson believes counts for very little, as it is for Liverpool in their quest for fourth – pitches Ronaldo among equals for once in a while and in Fernando Torres – the country's top striker on current form – a player more likely to deliver on the big occasion. But the enigma is Wayne Rooney, who is languishing in 17th on the league top scorers' list with just eight and none at Old Trafford since October and who will surely fail to build on that extraordinary record he has of always equalling or bettering his previous season's goal tally (The record since he burst onto the scene at Everton six years ago reads 8,9, 17, 17, 19, 23).
His tally this season is 13, though Ferguson believes he will at least make it up to 20. "The season's not finished yet," he said. "All strikers, particularly younger ones, when they're not scoring they start to wonder where their next goal is coming from. Wayne's no different."
Ferguson, for whom Wes Brown seems likely to stand in for Rio Ferdinand thus making way for John O'Shea at right back – while Edwin Van der Sar may have recovered from a groin injury – maintains that it is the role of lesser clubs in stealing points from the title challengers which will still define the title race. "If we win and Chelsea and Arsenal lose it will be a big day," he quipped. But should United and Chelsea both prevail, the grounds for arguments – with referees or otherwise – would be considerably reduced.