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Rafa’s Cracking Up…

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The title race looked like it was over by Christmas with Newcastle steaming away in the first half of the season. King Kevin Keegan was taking the Geordies to new heights and it seemed unimaginable that any club, even Manchester United, would claw pack the points they were lacking.

However, as Newcastle started to drop points, United couldn’t help themselves in picking them up. Following our 4-1 battering at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day, something must have clicked for our lads.

In the remaining 16 games of the season, Eric Cantona, who had returned to this team of apparent kids a couple of months earlier, who supposedly wouldn’t win anything, scored 10 goals, with United winning 13 matches. Within these games was the 1-0 at St. James Park, adding to the string of defeats Newcastle suffered within the same time period, winning just 8 of their last 16.

With three games to go, United played a fierce Leeds team, who even with 10 men were incredibly difficult for us to beat. Sir Alex Ferguson later mentioned, ‘in passing’, that Newcastle would not have to struggle so much to pick up three points against Leeds, our Yorkshire rivals wouldn’t fight half as hard to stop Newcastle from winning.

After beating Leeds the following week, Keegan used an interview with Sky Sports as a way of venting the frustration he’d been building up. How dare Ferguson try and imply Newcastle’s route to the title would be easier than United’s! That rant is famed for the moment Newcastle’s title hopes went up in smoke.

Newcastle drew their remaining two games of the season whilst United won both theirs, 5-0 and 3-0. We wanted that title and we had the nerve to go out there and win it.

Some say we’ve seen a similar melt down in Liverpool boss, Rafael Benitez, whose team has lead the table all season. Are they right?

Benitez doesn’t lack the emotional maturity that Keegan does. He’s the kind of manager who remains calm in the dugout when his team scores a goal. He’s the kind of manager who doesn’t usually get involved with bitching in the press. He would never erupt like Keegan did as it’s not within his grasp to experience such a range of emotions, at least, he’s never shown it to be.

When he laid in to Ferguson and Manchester United for a good few minutes my initial reaction, before reading any write-ups in the press or hearing any ‘professional’ opinion, was how odd it was. What an odd thing to do. Initially, it wasn’t funny like it was on first viewing the Keegan rant, just really strange. Why is he sat there reading from a piece of paper, in the press conference for his team’s game against Stoke, about everything ‘Mr. Ferguson’ has supposedly done?

This wasn’t some off the cuff moment of frustration, rather a planned exercise. He went to that press conference prepared. He would talk about the Stoke game, then he would talk about ‘Mr. Ferguson’. Weird.

Clearly, whoever he had practiced his speech with had emphasised the need for Benitez to refer to all he said as ‘fact’. If Benitez was talking facts, then what complaint can there be?

“I want to be clear, I do not want to play mind games too early, although they seem to want to start,” started Benitez. “But I have seen some facts. On 1 November, they played Hull and Mr Ferguson had a two-match touchline ban and a £10,000 fine after confronting Mike Dean, the referee, for improper conduct.”

Correct. That is fact. With 20 minutes to play against Hull, Michael Carrick was brought down nastily on the edge of the area by Turner, a player who was already on a yellow card. The incident happened in full view of the referee who awarded a free-kick, no second yellow.

Sky Sports: Turner, who was booked in the first half is lucky to escape a red card as he brings down Carrick on the edge of the area.

Ten minutes later, the referee awarded Hull a penalty. At the final whistle, Ferguson went over to Mike Dean, the referee, and confronted him. Gary Neville pulled him away as Ferguson stood pointing a finger in Dean’s face, shouting.

Fair do’s, that’s a punishable offence and Ferguson was duly punished by the FA, in the way that Benitez mentioned, a fine and a two-match ban.

“He is the only manager in the league that cannot be punished.”

Wait a minute. Rafa said we were talking facts. The first fact was Ferguson was punished by the FA. The second fact was Ferguson is the only manager who can’t be punished by the FA. He’s a moron or he’s cracked up.

“Then he was talking about the fixtures. Two years ago we were playing a lot of early kick-offs away on Saturdays when United were playing on Sundays. And we didn’t say anything.”

Two years ago, Liverpool played five early kick-offs on Saturday away from home (as did United). Sheffield United (August 19th), Everton (September 9th), Bolton (September 30th), Charlton (December 16th) and Watford (January 13th).

United played August 20th at 1.30pm then had another game three days later. Liverpool’s next game after the 19th was also three days later. United played Spurs on Saturday September 9th, not a Sunday. United played Newcastle on Sunday October 1st, which was followed by an International break meaning it had no real effect on the league. United played West Ham on Sunday December 17th. United played Villa on Saturday January 13th, not a Sunday.

So in fact, United played on a Sunday on three occasions when Liverpool had early kick offs and only one occasion did it have any bearing on the league.

He’s a moron or he’s cracked up.

“At Christmas, United played on the 29th and the rest of the teams played on the 28th. We were away against Newcastle two days after playing Bolton. They were playing about 40 hours later, they were not complaining then.” Obviously not. Why would we complain about having one more day off? Just over a minute later, he babbled the same point again. “They cannot complain about the fixtures after they were playing on December 29 while the rest played on the 28th.”

The media didn’t make a fuss of United winning the FIFA World Club Cup which is maybe why Benitez forgot about our trip to Japan. Between the first game in December and the 29th of the same month, Liverpool played six games. In that same time period, United played seven games, and travelled to and from Japan. Of course, it was our choice to play in this competition, just as Liverpool chose to when they won the European Cup. However, with massive travelling time and another 90 minutes of football under our belts, I’m not sure how Benitez can believe his players were further disadvantaged by United having any extra day to play, in order for Setanta to show the game.

“You can see every single week how they put (referees) under pressure, we know this. We have seen it before. We have seen players sent off at Old Trafford and we do not see our opponents sent off. It is part of the game. But to complain and to always have an advantage is not fair.”

Of course, Liverpool never put the referees under any pressure to send any players off. Unless we recall last season when Steven Gerrard kicked his leg out in an attempt to win a penalty (as Ronaldo does and gets called a diver for doing so) whilst running side by side with Everton defender Hibbert. Mark Clattenburg clearly had a yellow card in his hand, ready to book Hibbert. Then Liverpool captain ran over and had a go at the ref, causing Clatternburg to change his mind and send the Evertonian off. If United do it, it’s not fair, according to Mr. Benitez, but should we just sweep it under the carpet when his own team are guilty of the exact same thing?

Had Benitez been talking facts, and I mean real facts, (like Premiership players Rio Ferdinand and Christian Negouai both missed a drugs test in the same year. One was banned for 8 months by the FA and forced to pay a £50,000 fine, whilst the other faced no ban and was fined £2,000. Like Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes missing three Premiership matches after being sent off in the pre-season Amsterdam Tournament, yet when Steven Gerrard and Neil Mellor were sent off in the same tournament received no punishment from the FA) then there would be some sympathies for his cause. It would still be a strange thing to do, reading off a list of criticisms from a piece of paper about another manager, but there’d be some reasoning. However, as shown above, plenty of the items Benitez wanted to show as ‘facts’ were nothing of the sort!

Regardless, it should have ended there. If Benitez isn’t rattled by Ferguson then there would be no need to continue. He’s said his piece, end of story.

However, following Liverpool’s 0-0 draw with Stoke, which would allow United to go top if they won both their games in hand, Benitez is at again.

“I don’t regret saying it and I don’t think it had any effect on the players,” he said. “I can guarantee that a lot of people have sent a lot of messages, not to me but to our staff, and a lot of people in Liverpool think that at least one person has said something that everybody wanted to say. I’m not thinking about what people will think, I was thinking about my club. It was because of all of Mr Ferguson’s comments this season about Liverpool so we don’t understand why. I think he is nervous, clearly.”

What exactly did Ferguson say to spark the flames here? What did Ferguson say that riled Benitez enough to compile a list of ‘wrong-doings’ to throw in our manager’s face?

Ferguson said, quite sensibly, that the Liverpool players would begin to get nervous in the second half of the season, given that they are totally inexperienced when it comes to winning the Premiership.

Benitez takes care to mention that loads of people have supported him, but where are they? I’ve read comments from Ian Rush, Graham Poll and Andy Townsend which support what Benitez has said. Erm, but what about the people whose opinion actually matters? I, for one, couldn’t care less about what they had to say, on anything, so where are the well-respected people who agree with Rafa? Either they don’t exist or they’re not mad enough to go on and on to the press about it.

Ferguson dealt with Benitez, dismissing his comments like water off a duck’s back, calling the Spaniard ‘disturbed’, ‘angry’ and ‘ridiculous’.

So, two days, two sets of comments in United’s direction, surely he’s finished now? Sadly, no. His next target was David Gill.

Again, United dealt with the situation with a total air of calm.

“With respect to his comments on my position they are totally inaccurate,” said Gill. “The reality of it is that on the FA board sit three representatives of the Premier League in Premier League chairman Dave Richards, Bolton chairman Phil Gartside and myself. They are elected every year by every club in the Premier League and when we are on the board we are there representing the Premier League and I am not there representing Manchester United. The reality is that when you look at the decisions and issues I think anyone would understand that we don’t get special treatment because of that. Therefore I was surprised by Benitez’s comments and I think they are totally inaccurate.”

To quote the tacky terrace jeer… “Eeeeeeaseh! Eeeeeeeaseh!”

Now, whether Benitez’s comments had any negative effect on his team last weekend matters little. If United go on to lift the trophy in May, the press will focus on this weekend. Rafa has a pop at Fergie, Rafa’s team drop points to Stoke, Fergie’s team thrash Chelsea 3-0. It will be looked upon as the defining moment in Liverpool’s season.

Like Benitez’s complaint about Didier Drogba backfired massively, we could be seeing a same story unfold in regards to his attempt to take on Ferguson. His comments haven’t taken the pressure off his team, as those players all know that if they don’t win this weekend, it will be attributed to the ‘fact’ their manager has lost the plot. There is even more pressure on them than there was before and that will only intensify if United go top this weekend and Benitez opens his trap on Ferguson, again, in the Merseyside derby press conference.

Has Rafa done a Keegan? No. Keegan had emotion and heat of the moment to blame for his public criticism of the United manager. Benitez has no excuse. He sat there compiling a list of ‘facts’ and coming across as a pseudo-intellectual when he should have been preparing for a tough away fixture. If the title doesn’t go to Liverpool for the first time since 1990, the scousers will wonder what could have been had their manager been more focussed on their fixtures than he was penalty decisions not awarded against United last season or punishments handed out to the United manager.

The trophy is staying in Manchester, football’s coming home, as we sung against Wigan on Wednesday night… “He’s cracking up, he’s cracking up, he’s cracking, Rafa’s cracking up!”

More of the same at the Manchester United blog, The Republik of Mancunia.

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