Sunday Tribune

Rafa fans red derby flames


LIFE’S not been a beach, nor even a ball, for Rafael Benitez over the past three days but he has found encouragem­ent in improbable places.

The five fans who walked up to him in a superstore, thrust out their hands and didn’t complain, as the Kop had on Tuesday night, about him removing Yossi Benayoun against Lyon contribute­d to his belief that Liverpool might be short of Manchester United’s millions but have better supporters.

“We know there is a massive difference in money but we have better fans (than United) so I am really pleased,” he said yesterday.

This was not a cheap hit, though. Both Benitez and Alex Ferguson ducked any chance to throw mud at each other yesterday – “I will not talk about what he is talking about,” Benitez said when Ferguson’s dis- cussion of the combustibl­e nature of United’s yearly visit to Anfield came up – and the Liverpool manager, for whom Steven Gerrard is 50-50 to shake off a groin injury and play, was actually invoking the extraordin­ary history of support from Reds fans for their managers.

It is a loyalty apparently undimmed by the prospect of Liverpool losing five successive games for the first time in 22 years if Ferguson’s side defeat them tomorrow. When a thread, entitled “Rafa out: Please Support” appeared on a prominent Liverpool fans’ website, few dignified it with a reply and one of the few printable responses was: “This thread is some well needed comic relief.”

Typical Benitez that, while the words of Johan Cruyff are emblazoned on the wall of the media suite where he talks each Friday – “There’s not one club in the world so united with the fans. That’s something not many teams have. For that I admire Liverpool more than anything”.

It invoked a quotation Benitez had seen from Igor Biscan, one of Gérard Houllier’s more forgettabl­e signings: “He said if you work hard you know the fans will be behind you whether you make mistakes or not.”

Liverpool most certainly have made mistakes in the transfer market and perhaps none more so than not moving quickly to bring Michael Owen home this summer. Ferguson insisted yesterday that Owen only had eyes for United – “There was no negotiatio­n. He was desperate to come. It was so simple” – yet Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are believed to have been keen for Benitez to buy him back and the suspicion is Liverpool were too slow to get the back-up for Fernando Torres they now so palpably need.

Benitez was asked did he have regrets and he did not say no. “It’s not my decision, it’s his decision. I have a lot of good players before in my squad and I have a lot of good players now,” he said.

Tomorrow is the Spaniard’s 200th league game as manager and his record in that time surpasses every other Liverpool manager of modern times bar Dalglish.

While Benitez has won 113 of his 199 games – a 58.6 per cent success rate, Bill Shankly achieved 106 of 200 (53 per cent) and Houllier 101 (50.5 per cent). Ferguson’s 87 wins (43.5 per cent) are a reflection of his six initial years of toil at Old Trafford.

The protests at Anfield tomorrow will be directed at the club’s American owners, not the manager, and the best he can hope for is that new proprietor­s might be around the corner with money. For now, the challenge is how to deal with all those ideas the local citizens have for him.

Meanwhile Ferguson has declared ahead of Manchester United’s visit to Liverpool that his side have had a disproport­ionately high number of players sent off at Anfield – a product, he believes, of the effect of the highly charged atmosphere on referees.

“Referees can find it difficult when Anfield is charged up – like today.”

There have been five red cards in the past 11 visits, including Nemanja Vidic’s in the correspond­ing fixture last season, to go with the one he received when so tormented by Fernando Torres in the Old Trafford fixture.

Vidic has declared that his three-and-a-half years at United leave him with nothing to prove going into a fixture in which he is likely to be up against Torres again.

Ferguson believes Owen will get a tough reception as he returns to Liverpool. “There have been very few players who have played for both clubs,” Ferguson said.

“Paul Ince got a bad reception from our fans when he joined Liverpool (from Internazio­nale in 1997). Michael may well get that again today. Paul had six seasons with us whereas Michael played for Liverpool for over a decade and the goals he scored for them mark him down as one of their best ever strikers, but I don’t think anything will bother Michael.”

Ferguson predicted in preseason that Liverpool would struggle to match the club record 86 Premier League points they attained in the last league campaign, though he resisted any temptation to elaborate on how little silverware Benitez’s £232m gross spend has earned.

The hunger for a win on this occasion is as great as ever as United go in search of surpassing Liverpool’s 18 titles and revenge for the two defeats in the league fixtures last season.

“It is the kind of game when we came to our club 23 years ago, I thought, ‘Yeah’,” Ferguson said.

“The first derby with them was round about New Year’s Day and I had a complete sense of the history of both teams. It has never changed in the 23 years.”

Ferguson, whose response to a charge of improper conduct over the Alan Wiley case is awaited by the Football Associatio­n, did not feel that the referee Mike Jones was at fault for his decision to allow Sunderland’s freak beach-ball goal against Liverpool.

“I thought it was a goal. I thought these things counted. The wind can take the ball and you could say it was an outside agent, but when you see in the law what is laid down as an ‘outside agent’, it shouldn’t have been allowed. When it happens as quick as that, what does the referee do?” – The Independen­t


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