Will Benitez regret starting war of words?

Martin Rogers

It was Kevin Keegan who first learned that you don't play mind games with Sir Alex Ferguson and come out on top.

Thirteen years ago, Keegan, then manager of Newcastle United, launched into a furious anti-Ferguson rant on live television that became the symbolic moment of his team's title race collapse that handed Manchester United the English Premier League crown.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez threw his hat into the ring last week, lambasting Ferguson for his treatment of referees and his refusal to accept the "Respect" program designed to increase sportsmanship in the game.

As Benitez made his heartfelt comments at Liverpool's Melwood training ground last Friday, there was a sense that perhaps this was an indicator of his growing confidence. Maybe Liverpool had finally found the man to end its agonizing 19-year league title drought and this was Benitez's way of showing he feared no one.

Following the weekend's action, though, there can be no doubt: United is still very much the team to beat. And Ferguson happens to be at his deadliest when he is under attack.

Refusing to take the bait right away, Ferguson waited until Liverpool had slipped up in a disappointing 0-0 draw at Stoke City – and seen his own team demolish Chelsea's title challenge in a 3-0 victory – before coming up with a response.

"I think he [Benitez] was an angry man," Ferguson said. "He must have been disturbed for some reason. I think you have got to cut through the venom of it and hopefully he'll reflect and understand that what he said was absolutely ridiculous."

The comments were as acerbic as ever, and Ferguson's eyes told the real story. Extra motivation to win a third straight title, not that it was needed, just arrived. As if the demolition of a miserable Chelsea was not a big enough signal of intent, the 67-year-old's reaction told its own tale.

Benitez's comments cannot be faulted. His arguments were well thought out and merely voiced the long-held opinion in the English game that there is one set of rules for Ferguson and one for everyone else.

But by reading from notes at his news conference, Benitez made it appear as if this is a problem that has been bothering him for some time, which it clearly has. The Spaniard needs to realize that the way to damage United is by racking up victories, not by taking shots at its manager.

What Benitez said was right. But with his team at the top of the table and with the possibility of an EPL championship in sight, that doesn't mean he was right to say it.

Weekend First XI

1. Get him an Advil

Chelsea is in second place in the EPL and has qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, yet Luiz Felipe Scolari is rated by British bookmakers as the most likely manager to lose his job.

The side's demoralizing defeat to Manchester United on Sunday heaped extreme pressure on the Brazilian just seven months after he took over at Stamford Bridge.

Jose Mourinho, who was watching in the Old Trafford stands, must have scarcely been able to believe his eyes as the last remnants of the team he built were made to look like amateurs by a rampant United.

The title now looks very much like a two-horse race between United and Liverpool and it will go down as a disastrous season unless Scolari can create some unexpected magic in the Champions League. If, of course, he lasts that long.

2. Get him a beer

Most of the talk in Spain was about "Angry Sunday" with 52 yellow cards and five sendings off in eight La Liga matches. But the most impressive individual feat came from Lionel Messi, who saved Barcelona from embarrassment with a fierce left-foot winner with six minutes left to clinch a 3-2 victory at lowly Osasuna.

3. Get him some earplugs

David Beckham was booed as his name was announced at the Stadio Olimpico as Roma fans apparently weren't too impressed at the England midfielder making a surprise start for AC Milan.

Beckham's solid display in a 2-2 draw will only add to the speculation that he may not return to the Los Angeles Galaxy once his loan deal expires. Meanwhile, he can expect plenty more whistles and jeers from opposition supporters over the next few weeks.

4. Four corners

• Is Luciano Moggi the luckiest man in soccer? No jail? Really?

• Will Yaya Toure's desire to stay at Barcelona change when Manchester City offers to double his wages?

• Doesn't it seem like Juergen Klinsmann might just be the right man to get the best out of Landon Donovan?

• Can Claudio Lopez have more of an effect in his second season in MLS?

5. Catch a flight to …

London. Then jump on a train to the seaside town of Southend-on-Sea, where local side Southend United host Chelsea in an FA Cup replay on Wednesday night after earning a gallant draw at Stamford Bridge two weekends ago.

6. A round of applause for …

• Raul. Many critics believe the Real Madrid striker's best days are behind him, but write the 31-year-old off at your peril. He marked his 500th league appearance in fine style this weekend with a timely goal in a 3-0 victory over Real Mallorca.

• Napoli fans. When news that the club's Slovakian midfield star Marek Hamsik had been robbed of his Rolex watch, enterprising supporters tracked down the thieves, secured the item and returned the timepiece to its grateful owner.

7. Get them a Kleenex

Zenit St. Petersburg. Sure, the Russian club will cash in on the sale of Andrei Arshavin to Arsenal or Manchester City to the tune of around $18 million. But it may signal the end of the recent good times for the team that dazzled Europe on its march to the UEFA Cup trophy, thanks mainly to Arshavin's brilliance.

8. Get ready to say hello to …

Kamani Hill. The VfL Wolfsburg outcast is starting to attract some attention in Major League Soccer, and he could be ready to return home after a tough couple of years in Germany.

9. Get ready to say goodbye to …

Bobby Boswell. The out-of-contract Houston Dynamo MVP is on trial with Antalyaspor of the Turkish Super League and is expected to sign a short-term deal.

10. Get excited about …

The Pan Pacific Championship. Why, I hear you ask? Why not? OK, it's just a preseason tournament, but if the prospect of seeing an under-strength Los Angeles Galaxy doesn't set your pulse racing, then look forward to getting a glimpse of some of Asia's leading teams. Oita Trinita (Japan), Suwon Samsung Bluewings (South Korea) and Shandong Luneng Taishan (China) are all national champions and have some exciting talent.

11. Why it's good to be a soccer player

Because if you total your Ferrari, you can just bring out the Bentley.

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