Benitez is master of mind games not bumbling fool

Neil Trainis IT is not easy for onlookers to decide if the enigmatic Rafael Benitez knows exactly what he is doing, as indicated by his past successes, or whether he is stumbling aimlessly from one problem to the next at Anfield. A febrile rant at Sir Alex Ferguson sm

Neil Trainis

IT is not easy for onlookers to decide if the enigmatic Rafael Benitez knows exactly what he is doing, as indicated by his past successes, or whether he is stumbling aimlessly from one problem to the next at Anfield.

A febrile rant at Sir Alex Ferguson smacked at a panicked attempt to deflect the attention from a faltering side unable to gain any consistency in seeing off supposed inferiors, especially at home, as England's most successful club strived to claim the championship they last won in 1990.

There was a stark critique on behalf of the Spaniard of the treatment dished out by his foe towards referees and a subsequent trashing of the highly publicised but recently ostracised Respect campaign.

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Then came an unforgiving riposte to complaints made by Ferguson concerning the fixture list, and its detriment to Manchester United. Benitez dismissed the Scot's argument that his club were at a disadvantage with disdain, even sarcastically hinting at a conspiracy on the part of a man who, in Benitez's eyes, had gotten too big for his boots.

"There is another option. Mr Ferguson organises the fixtures in his office and sends it to us and everyone will know and cannot complain. That is simple," scoffed the Liverpool manager. Was that a joke designed to mock Ferguson or a genuine effort to remind the Football Association and Premier League that, as authoritative bodies, it is they and not an increasingly influential manager who has the final say on fixtures?

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Benitez was correct when he claimed that Ferguson's complaints about the composition of the fixture list was baseless. After all, United would have played the top teams in potentially title-deciding matches during the second half of the season at Old Trafford.

That was followed by an attack borne of personal experience when Benitez endeavoured to make everyone aware just how daunting a trip to that venue to play United is.

"We know what happens every time we go to Old Trafford and the United staff. They are always going man-to-man with the referees, especially at half-time when they walk close to the referees and they are talking and talking," Benitez's suggested, the insinuation being that United attempt to influence officials through the medium of pressure.

Ferguson's historical conduct towards referees does not help to extinguish Benitez's accusations, in fact it fuels them, but any manager with a monumental objective in front of him would be better off controlling his grievances until the season is over.

Benitez, in all probability, regards his outburst towards Ferguson as a means of deflecting the attention from his players as they bid to overcome the kind of inconsistency which is crippling their campaign.

Certainly Benitez's concerns about the conduct of Ferguson and his coaching staff appeared strategically timed to coincide with Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford, a match United nonetheless won convincingly.

In that regard there is doubt that Benitez's public haranguing of Ferguson was merely an emotionally-charged outpouring of Kevin Keegan proportions prompted by desperation. Benitez's offensive, unlike that of Keegan, appears more premeditated and controlled.

Practical people usually seek out avenues with the least pitfalls, striving to make life easy for themselves, and there is an argument that Benitez is a long way from that model since his behaviour has created unwanted ripples at a time when his focus should be geared towards winning football matches.

Yet his school of thought may have been to ignore what the outside world thinks of him and shift the spotlight, and pressure, on to Ferguson. Benitez's proclivity for psychological warfare should not be underestimated.

He has failed to pull that off and that has been down to him. Poor results, interrupted by victory over Chelsea, have weakened his position from which to attack Ferguson and his handling of Robbie Keane, the striker he paid �20.3m for but sold back to Tottenham six months later, has generated doubts about his judgment in the minds of his supporters.

Keane should have been a prominent figure in Liverpool's title assault but it is not the manager's fault that the player failed to fit into his system, or handle the pressure, as the Spaniard would later concede.

Liability attaches itself to Benitez in his failure to sign a replacement of adequate experience and ability. More is required from Dirk Kuyt to support Fernando Torres as a goal threat, Ryan Babel has yet to fulfill his promise and David Ngog and Nabil El Zhar remain raw and impetuous at a time when discipline is required.

Yet do not be fooled into thinking Benitez, a man who has encountered and conquered the pressures of winning league titles with his brace of championships at Valencia, has lost control.

As the heat of battle with Ferguson and United ensues the Spaniard is simply playing the game. One his rival is renowned for.

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