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Hunter: Neymar has a tough choice

La Liga

Benitez insists Fergie rant didn't impact on players

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez insisted his outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson had no impact on his players as they stumbled to a potentially costly draw at Stoke.

The Barclays Premier League leaders missed an opportunity to go six points clear at the top ahead of tomorrow's Old Trafford clash between fellow title hopefuls Manchester United and Chelsea.

Benitez had launched a surprising tirade against United boss Ferguson during yesterday's pre-match press conference, hitting out at what he saw as Ferguson's complete ignorance of the Football Association's 'Respect' campaign towards officials, and the Scot's complaints about the Premier League fixture list.

But after the goalless Britannia Stadium clash, Benitez stressed the game had not been affected by his widely-publicised words.

"I don't think so,'' the Spaniard said when asked if the comments had been a distraction, repeating the answer when pressed on whether it might have had any effect.

He added on Setanta Sports 1: "When you are top you want to win, it doesn't matter which game it is. Today we needed to win, with or without the press conference.

"After 22 years with Ferguson in charge it could have been any moment (to bring it up) so why not the other day? I think it was the right moment to say, 'That's it, now we will talk about everything'.

"I was thinking about defending my team. I thought 'enough is enough' and that's it.''

Liverpool stretched their lead to four points with the draw, but nearest rivals Chelsea could trim that to one point at Old Trafford.

United, meanwhile, go into tomorrow's match eight points behind their north-west rivals but armed with three games in hand.

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard hit the crossbar and the left post in the closing stages as the visitors pushed without success for a winning goal.

Stoke had chances themselves though, and Rory Delap hit the underside of the Liverpool crossbar inside the first quarter of an hour, with Richard Cresswell unable to convert from the rebound.

Benitez explained: "We're not happy but it was a difficult game. We could have won at the end. It's better than losing. Stoke is a very difficult team to play against so every throw-in, free-kick and corner is a problem.''

Although Liverpool missed out on two additional points, Benitez was not too worried by the result.

"I think we are at the top of the table so we are still in a very good position,'' he said. While United could gain nine points from their games in hand, Benitez was quick to stress: "They have to win.''

Stoke manager Tony Pulis also steered his team to a goalless draw at Anfield earlier in the season, and was quick to offer an appreciation of today's display.

He told Setanta: "I'm very, very pleased with the players. The effort and commitment was first class, and we created quite a few good chances as well.''

Pulis has little doubt Liverpool will have a huge part to play in the title race, despite his team's unbeaten record against the Reds this season.

"Liverpool are a great side, they've got some great players and it's a great football club,'' he said. "They're in the best position they possibly could be. I'm sure Rafa will be pleased to push on from here.''

The point lifted Stoke out of the bottom three, although with just five points separating the teams from 11th to 20th in the top flight Pulis knows there is plenty of work ahead. He said: "We're very pleased that so many clubs are involved. It makes it really exciting for everybody else.''


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