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Jan 9, 2009

Starting a fight in an empty room

Rafa Benitez has been goaded into a furious reaction after losing his cool and falling into yet another baited trap set by the master of the mind game, Sir Alex Ferguson. Or has he?

That's the obvious reaction to the Liverpool manager's fascinating outburst against his Manchester United counterpart. But surely to fall into a trap, one first has to be set, and as Benitez himself said, it seems a little early in the season for Fergie to fire the opening salvo in his traditional psychological war.

The spark that ignited Benitez's tirade was Ferguson's claims of last week that the Premier League's fixtures are designed to scupper United. Does anyone actually believe that, even for a second?

Rather than his usual barbed criticism or loaded comment, Ferguson's rant bore all the hallmarks of a slightly tired and paranoid character venting frustration against the club's choc-a-bloc calendar, itself a trapping of the club's continued success.

Would the Premier League really manipulate the fixture list to undermine their most prized asset? Remember the league's job is to work on the clubs' behalf not against them, and United are the league's biggest cash cow; to undermine them would be to undermine the league.

No, Ferguson didn't set a trap for Benitez, rather Benitez seems to have started a fight in an empty room - a talent Fergie once claimed belonged to Denis Wise.

Unlike Kevin Keegan's infamous 'I would love it if they beat them, love it' when one could envisage Ferguson stretching back on the sofa and taking a sip from celebratory glass of red after a job well done, in this case Ferguson's private reaction is more likely to be one of incredulity followed by mild amusement.

The most extraordinary part of Benitez's tirade was its premeditated nature. Sat in his weekly pre-match press conference, the Spaniard read from a prepared sheet on which were detailed myriad charges and claims against Ferguson.

At first when Benitez looked to his script there appeared to be a stifled grin on his face, as if he knew what he was saying would have repercussions, but as the speech continued so Benitez revealed what appeared to be a genuine antipathy towards Ferguson.

The starting point for Benitez's outburst was Ferguson's claim over a fixtures conspiracy, something Benitez refuted by suggesting that in fact Liverpool suffered more than United.

There then followed a list of charges and occasions when Ferguson has flouted the new Respect agenda and received no punishment for personally criticising referees and allowing his players and staff to harangue officials during games.

It was remarkable stuff, but if one accepts that Ferguson never set a trap to snare Benitez in the first place, the mystery remains as to why has the Spaniard had his say now?

It could be that he is employing a double bluff and is actually trying to goad Fergie. Or it could be that after five years of quiet seething Rafa has let his guard down and revealed just how infuriating he finds Fergie's approach to the game.

Perhaps it is a little of both, with the added objective of taking attention away from his own squad as their title credentials come under close scrutiny with an added benefit of adding a little pressure to Ferguson's own charges while issuing a marker to Premier League referees.

What we know for certain is that what Benitez said and the manner of it was remarkable, and that the reaction, or lack thereof, from Ferguson will be equally fascinating.

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