The task in hand should have been Everton at Wembley in tomorrow’s FA Cup semi-final, but Sir Alex Ferguson instead chose to escalate his increasingly intemperate verbal warfare with the Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez yesterday, accusing him of arrogance, a lack of humility and being “beyond the pale” in his disrespectful conduct towards other managers.
Though as yet the Premier League have no plans to intervene in the war of words between the two men, they will soon have to do so, if this goes on.
Ferguson is clearly spoiling for a fight at the slightest opportunity and the flimsiness of his latest ‘evidence’ against Benitez — what he and his old friend Sam Allardyce, the Blackburn Rovers manager, perceive as a ‘game-over’ gesture after Fernando Torres scored his second goal against Rovers at Anfield last Saturday — reveals as much.
“There’s one thing with his arrogance that he showed that you can’t forgive and that is his contempt for Sam Allardyce last week when Liverpool scored their second goal,” Ferguson said. “It was absolute contempt. I don’t think Sam Allardyce deserved that. A guy who has worked so hard looking after young managers and players [and who was] playing with a team that was weakened. I don’t think any other Liverpool manager would ever have done that. But he is beyond the pale.”
Allardyce, whose loathing of Benitez prompted his own sarcastic attacking on his “wingeing” before their Anfield match, had already weighed in before Ferguson spoke yesterday. “I’d expect better and however we compete and pit our wits against each other I don't think there's any need for that,” he said of the so-called gesture. "Without having the opportunity to speak to him, I have to make it clear what I feel about it. He probably was avoiding me but that shows you the measure of the man."
But while Allardyce says he has spent the week watching “three or four replays” of the incident, close examination of it reveals Benitez to have been doing little more than smiling. Benitez chose not to enter the spat yesterday but the view from Liverpool is that a positive gesture the manager made to midfielder Xabi Alonso at the moment in question — the Spaniard having ignored his own instructions and still set up the Torres goal — has been mistaken for something more malign.
Ferguson, whose press secretary attempted to move the conversation on as Ferguson's attack on Benitez persisted, insisted he and Allardyce had not concocted the attack between them. “No,” he said, when asked if they had discussed it. “I saw it and I’m surprised nobody picked it up actually.” But the Scot used it as a launch pad for the latest of a series of attacks on Benitez, which have been pouring forth with mounting venom ever since the Spaniard’s now legendary ‘fact’ attack on the Scot.
“He’s never done that [gestured in the dug-out] to me and never had a chance,” Ferguson added yesterday. “I think you should respect a manager. I don’t think you’d ever get me doing something like that — you won’t. You have to have humility.”
The first hint yesterday that Ferguson had Benitez in his sights came with a passing reference to the Spaniard’s claim last season that Everton were a 'small club'. “That just points to his arrogance but David Moyes is building a big club, the evidence is there.” Benitez should have expected all this when he began this war of words. Ferguson initially responded by tartly suggesting that Benitez might be suffering psychological problems.
That was before the critical factor in this saga: Liverpool's challenge to United's once virtually unassailable position which, after the 4-1 win at Old Trafford, now sees them only a point behind with a game more played. “I don’t know what he does in his spare time but he’s certainly not using it in the right way,” was the last jibe yesterday at the Liverpool manager.
Watching videos of Premier League opposition from his mountainous library, is the answer.
Almost overlooked amid all this was the small matter of Everton at Wembley, though there was an affectionate word for Moyes and his claim that referee Mike Riley might have United leanings. "Someone's winding Davie up," Ferguson said.
Ferguson needed a moment or two to weigh up an answer when asked whether, "hand on heart" beating Everton was as important as beating Porto and he hinted at a youthful complexion to his line-up.
The prospect of 19-year-old Rafael da Silva coming in at full back seems possible, as does a role for Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson.
In Ferguson’s mind is the renewal of league battles on Tuesday, when Liverpool face a crucial home fixture with Arsenal 24 hours before United host Portsmouth. Hence, more barbs from Ferguson about Chelsea posing a greater threat than Liverpool.
“Who was in the better frame of mind on Wednesday morning? Chelsea obviously,” he said. “Chelsea are buoyed up.”