"This will be Fergie’s first true title battle with Liverpool and he will love it, knowing that success will take United level with the Kop on 18 league titles.
“If, however, Benitez can handle what Fergie will throw at him, allied to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres playing most of Liverpool’s remaining fixtures, the title could at last be heading back to Anfield this year. Let the mind games begin.”
This was how I ended last week’s column. I didn’t think I would be writing about the same subject so soon.
“If Benitez can handle what Fergie will throw at him ”
Well, the Liverpool manager hasn’t made a good start, has he?
Rafa’s rant at Ferguson on Friday wasn’t an emotional outburst like Kevin Keegan’s infamous “love it” speech when Newcastle were challenging Manchester United for the Premiership.
It was pre-meditated with his “facts” written out on a piece of paper and calculated to have maximum impact ahead of United’s crucial game at home to Chelsea at Sunday. It didn’t work.
In fact Rafa’s plan blew up in his face because not only did United hammer Chelsea, the previous night Liverpool could only manage a draw at Stoke. Benitez gambled. He put all he had on red and it came up black.
Throughout the football world many will have agreed with the Spaniard’s sentiments that Ferguson often gets away with slamming referees and officialdom, but from Liverpool’s point of view to make those comments at this particular time was a major error.
Not the first Benitez has made at Anfield, but it could be the most telling.
If you are going to talk the talk, you must walk the walk.
On Saturday night at the Britannia Stadium, Liverpool barely crawled in an inept performance.
It wasn’t helped by a cautious team selection from the manager with Fernando Torres, back from injury starting on the bench, while young holding Brazilian midfielder Lucas, never effective in physical encounters, played the full 90 minutes.
Contrast the negative 4-5-1 tactics of Liverpool to the adventure shown by United against Chelsea.
A great weekend then for United and a shocking one for Liverpool. It was pretty appalling for Chelsea as well. Unless Luis Felipe Scolari sorts out the growing problems at his club, Aston Villa won’t just finish above Arsenal, they’ll also be ahead of the Stamford Bridge outfit!
Back to Benitez and Ferguson. The United boss will feel he has come out of all this extremely well, suggesting that Benitez’s “venomous comments were ridiculous”.
By the time Liverpool play their next game tonight week at home to in-form Everton, the Red Devils should be top of the table, having beaten
Wigan on Wednesday and Bolton this weekend.
And the thing is Fergie’s mind games with Rafa haven’t even started. Believe me Ferguson will have a lot more up his sleeve when the pressure intensifies come March and April, if Liverpool are still in the running by then.
The Scot has won this battle. Benitez must regroup, get smart, pick positive teams and win the war.
Otherwise he will have blown the best chance Liverpool have had to win the league in years.
Just a footnote to this:
"I can understand why clubs come away from Anfield choking on their own vomit and biting their tongues knowing they have been done by the referee. It would be a miracle to win here. I am not getting at this referee. It is the whole intimidating atmosphere and the monopoly they (Liverpool) have enjoyed here for years that gets to the referees eventually."
This was said by Ferguson in 1988 after a highly controversial 3-3 draw between United and Liverpool at Anfield in which Norman Whiteside inspired a stunning late comeback for the visitors who earlier had Colin Gibson sent off.
Replying to that astonishing attack, the then Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish, holding his daughter, told the press: “You’d get more sense from my baby!”
Liverpool won the title that season by nine points with United a distant second.
Memo to Mr Benitez: Sometimes simple and off the cuff can work better than contrived and planned.
Norway job just right for Sanchez
I wasn’t at all surprised to see Lawrie Sanchez declaring himself interested in becoming the new Norway manager.
Lawrie, like most out of work managers, is desperate to get back into the game after his unsuccessful spell in charge of Fulham.
It’s over a year since Lawrie got the boot at Craven Cottage.
He’s been doing media work since, but clearly misses the cut and thrust of management and having failed to return at club level to date, he has set his sights on the international scene.
And why not?
After all, with Northern Ireland he worked wonders.
Sanchez, of course, took over our wee country when we were at our lowest ebb.
The only way was up and Sanchez took us on a remarkable rollercoaster ride, inspiring some of the greatest highs ever experienced by our national team, before doing what he said he wouldn’t, and leaving when still under contract to the Irish FA once Fulham offered him the chance to manage them on a full-time basis.
Many feel we would have qualified for the Euro 2008 finals had he stayed.
We will never know.
Now the Norway job is up for grabs and there are similarities to Northern Ireland, because the Scandinavians are on a dreadful run at present.
True, they haven’t gone well over 1000 minutes without scoring, but they didn’t win a game in 2008 and are bottom of their World Cup qualifying group.
Sounds as if it is made for Sanchez.
There would be a certain irony if he gets the job as Norway provided the opposition for Lawrie in his first match as Northern Ireland boss.
After their by now annual slump in December, even the most loyal Glentoran fans started to question whether their team had what it took to win the JJB Sports Premiership.
To be fair to Alan McDonald’s side they have hit back from the festive failings, beating Glenavon and Lisburn Distillery to move back to the top of the table.
Now they have to stay there. And show the necessary bottle and character to do it.
Their latest test comes tomorrow night at Institute, managed by John Gregg who is proving such a success at Drumahoe.
Win that one and we’ll all be convinced Glentoran can go all the way.
David Healy admits this has been a disappointing season for him.
Too often in the last frustrating five months he has been sitting in the stands when he was desperate to play first team football at Sunderland.
He was given a rare chance on Saturday, coming off the bench with 10 minutes left as Sunderland trailed 1-0 at Middlesbrough.
Healy delivered. Not the sort of goal that has made him a Northern Ireland legend, but a perfect cross for Kenwyne Jones to equalise. It was a real sign of quality which hopefully will see David given further - and longer - opportunities in the remainder of the campaign.