No sign of a thaw in the icy relationship as Benitez locks horns with his old adversary

Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez will renew their rivalry this weekend. Photograph: Matt Peters/Getty

Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez will renew their rivalry this weekend. Photograph: Matt Peters/Getty

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

David Hytner on the keen rivalry between two driven managers who meet tomorrow

Rafael Benitez described the sending-off that flabbergasted Nani, scrambled Manchester United and pitched Alex Ferguson towards unspeakable fury as “a little bit harsh”. The Chelsea manager said he had channel-hopped in and out of United’s bitter Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid on Tuesday, despite it appearing to be must-see TV for him.

The impression he offered was somewhere between nonchalance and diplomacy, the latter of which has been his default setting since he took interim charge at Stamford Bridge last November or, to put it another way, jumped two-footed into the vipers’ nest.

It was not difficult, though, to imagine how Benitez truly felt as he watched his boyhood club, and the one that he hopes to join in the summer, knock out United and it would not have been a million miles from the sentiment expressed by John Bishop, the Liverpool-supporting comedian. “Feel for Utd,” Bishop tweeted. “I remember how hard it was to win our 4th one . . .”

Cannot weep

Benitez cannot weep for Ferguson, the man who came to be his nemesis during his six years at Liverpool; rather, he might have perceived a biting irony.

To him, Ferguson was the arch-bully of officials, who would throw his weight around with impunity while United were the club with the political influence. But here they were, undermined by the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir’s questionable decision to dismiss Nani for a high boot and, in the immediate aftermath, they looked powerless to prevent the dream from unravelling.

Benitez has plenty on his plate, as he prepares to take Chelsea to Old Trafford for tomorrow’s FA Cup quarter-final, his first appearance at the stadium since his departure from Liverpool at the end of the 2009-10 season.

His team’s schedule has been relentless; this will be game 51 of their season, and the issues of the squad’s balance and how best to rotate the players are delicate, to say the least.

Storm clouds

There are the storm clouds of Frank Lampard’s future, John Terry’s playing minutes and Fernando Torres; Champions League qualification is fraught – even Europa League progress is in the balance after Thursday’s 1-0 defeat at Steaua Bucharest in the last 16 first leg – and Benitez knows that he has to produce for the sake of his next career move. And, of course, he is working in the face of open hostility from a vocal section of the Chelsea support.

Ferguson, too, is not without distractions, such as Wayne Rooney, and the United manager has been on a war footing over the media coverage of their relationship. Robin van Persie’s lull is also a worry.

Yet the spice comes from the collision between Benitez and Ferguson. The pair have done nothing to fan the flames of their enmity in the countdown to kick-off but even Ferguson’s attempt at no comment carried a haughty edge.

“I’m not going to kick anyone when they’re lying down,” he said. “It’s not my style.”

There was a time when they got along. Benitez spent a few days at United’s training ground when he was a manager in Spain, observing Ferguson’s set-up and methods and, after he worked Liverpool’s Champions League miracle in 2005, Ferguson was one of the first people to congratulate him in writing. Benitez appreciated the gesture, although it is unclear whether Ferguson did likewise when his counterpart talked about it in public.

It should also be noted that when Ferguson’s young grandson, Charlie, was badly injured in a car crash and was treated at Liverpool’s Alder Hey hospital, Benitez wrote to him to offer his assistance. It was May 2009, at the end of the season when their relationship had reached its nadir, and it suggested the ability to rise above the professional conflict.

When the flashpoints between these stubborn and competitive men are considered, “the facts” always spring most readily to mind.

Each one is willing to try almost anything to gain a psychological advantage and Benitez’s infamous press conference in January 2009, when he spoke of “facts” as he insinuated that Ferguson influenced referees and the fixture calendar, was not only an attack on United but an attempt to exploit perceived divisions at Old Trafford.

Greatest divide

If it was easy to detect Benitez’s paranoia behind the carefully researched presentation, and it marked the moment that the hostility between the characters on either side of English football’s greatest divide bubbled to the surface.

Ferguson’s retort that he would need to be “Freud to understand” Benitez was perhaps as personal as he has been with him. The comment shone a bright light on Ferguson’s disdain for Benitez’s complexities and politicking.

In April 2009, Ferguson accused Benitez of “arrogance” and “contempt” with regard to his behaviour towards Sam Allardyce and David Moyes.

Benitez had incensed Allardyce, who was in charge of Blackburn Rovers at the time, with a supposed “game over” hand signal, after Liverpool’s second goal in a 4-0 home win while he had previously referred to Moyes’s Everton as a “small club”.

Allardyce and Moyes are friends of Ferguson and part of the group of British managers who work hard for their union.

If Ferguson is the godfather of the family, then Benitez is the suspicious outsider, who is derided for his indifference to old-school conventions, like the all-important post-match drink.

It is no coincidence that Ferguson clashed most severely with Benitez in 2008-09, when Liverpool challenged seriously for the Premier League title.

When Ferguson feels threatened, the street fighter in him lashes out and the emotions were surely magnified because this was Liverpool, the club he had evicted from their perch.

Benitez refused to congratulate his rival when United won the title that season and there is something about him that grates with Ferguson.

When the Scot sees off an opponent, as he effectively did with Benitez, he tends to mellow towards them.

Ferguson’s record against Benitez shows eight wins and four defeats; in other words, there would appear to be little scope for an unsettled on-the-field score.

But the friction has endured. Ferguson said Benitez was “lucky” when he got the Chelsea job, in that he had the chance to win a second Club World Cup with a team he had not built, whereas Benitez warmed up an old chestnut in January when he claimed it was “obvious” that Ferguson continued to exert undue pressure on officials. It seems Sunday’s handshakes between the pair still won’t count for much.

Guardian Service

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