Rafa vs Fergie: Benitez a hero or villain?

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Rafa Benitez speaks to the media prior to Liverpools 0-0 draw at Stoke

Rafa Benitez spoke to the media prior to Liverpool's 0-0 draw at Stoke

Last Friday, at the Liverpool press conference, the lines of battle were firmly drawn between managerial heavyweights Rafa Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson. Benitez was responding to Ferguson’s mid-week taunts directed at his club Liverpool.

The war of words all began when Ferguson had a jab at Benitez’s Liverpool. He remarked that nerves might ruin Liverpool’s title chances. Ferguson, or ‘Fergie’ as he affectionately known by all, is renowned for his ‘mind-games’ with rival Premiership managers. In recent times, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho have been his main targets.

However perhaps his most famous victim was Kevin Keegan. During the 1995-96 title race, after Ferguson indulged in a few mind games, Keegan found it all too much and made one of the most famous outbursts in Premiership history. A teary eyed Keegan declared: “I’d love it if we beat them! Love it!”. Newcastle, who were top of the league at the time, went on to wastefully throw away their lead and Manchester United won the title. 

So, Benitez would have been aware for the need to choose his words carefully when responding to Ferguson, if responding at all. He was obviously aware that the subject of the Manchester United boss would arise during the press conference. As soon as one journalist asked him for his opinion on the matter, Benitez withdrew a carefully folded A4 sheet of paper from his suit pocket and unleashed a tirade of abuse at the wily Scotsman.

He first admitted that he was surprised by Ferguson’s comments. He believed that Liverpool being top of the table had caused nerves and doubts to start to creep into the minds of the Manchester United manager and his players. 

He accused Ferguson of betraying the ‘Respect’ campaign, pointing out that ‘Mr Ferguson is ‘killing the referees’.  He highlighted his belief that the F.A have a lenient stance towards the disobedient United manager. He went on to criticise Ferguson’s complaints over the fixture list, believing them to be unfounded.

He proposed two solutions to Ferguson’s perceived problems with the process of creating the fixtures: follow Spain’s fixture structure, or allow Ferguson to draw them him up himself.

He comically advised Luis Scolari and his coaching staff to employ a zonal marking system at Old Trafford, but not against the opposition players on the pitch, but against the United coaching staff on the sidelines. 

In the aftermath of Liverpool’s disappointing 0-0 draw away to Stoke, the Liverpool manager was asked did he regret what he had said. He replied: ‘No’. He added that in twenty years no-one had the courage to stand up to Ferguson. Until now. He revealed that his staff had received a lot texts regarding the issue. According to Benitez they read that the senders were happy that ‘at least one person had said, what everyone had wanted to say’. He was also quizzed whether he thought that his outburst had a diverse affect on Liverpool’s performance. He replied that he didn’t think so. 

Ferguson had remained unusually quiet throughout all the events of Friday and Saturday. Maybe biding his time and waiting to see the outcome of his teams encounter with second placed Chelsea. Subsequently after the 3-0 victory, the silence was broken. 

In a post match interview he slammed Benitez, saying:

“Hopefully he will reflect and understand what he said was ridiculous. I think he was an angry man and I think he was disturbed for some reason, that’s all I’ve got to say about it.” – Ferguson responds to Benitez’s outburst

So who was the real winner of this heavyweight bout? For me the answer is simple. Rafa Benitez will become either the hero or the villain. I think he summed up the thoughts of every reasonable, un-biased football fan, but his timing was questionable.

Fans are sick of hearing Ferguson complain when results don’t go his way. Last years FA Cup quarter-final clash with Portsmouth is the perfect of example of the Red Devils boss blowing a fuse after a disappointing result. He escaped punishment that time, like many other occasions, despite criticising the referee chief Keith Hackett. 

Benitez has received public support from Graham Poll. The former Premiership referee backed up the claims made by Benitez, that Ferguson enjoys lenient treatment from the F.A.  In an interview with the Daily Mail he said:

“Benitez has articulated what referees have been thinking for years – that Sir Alex Ferguson can say what he wants about them and the FA will allow him to get away with it.”

If Liverpool go on to win the league, he will rightly be lauded as genius. But if Liverpool suffer a dip in form and surrender their position at the top, and allow United to equal their league title haul then Rafa may have egg on his face.

Many will question whether now was the right time to launch such an attack on United’s boss. Maybe towards the end of the season, such an action would reasonable. But with 19 games to go, it surely is too soon to be getting involved in ‘mind-games’. 

If Liverpool do fail to deliver their 19th elusive title, Benitez will ultimately look back on the 9th January, 2009 as the day Liverpool threw the title away.

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