x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rafael Benitez looks to gain upper hand at Chelsea over Sir Alex Ferguson

Tensions are expected to build on the touchline as Rafa Benitez looks to get one over on his old rival.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez on the touchline.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez on the touchline.

LONDON // There is a strange code in the soap opera of the Premier League, something intricate and subtle, understood perfectly by insiders who have grown up within the culture, utterly baffling to those outside.

Rafa Benitez, manager of Chelsea, does not get on with Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United.

Neither will say this, for that would be a breach of protocol. Instead, before today's FA Cup quarter-final replay, they will play out their antipathy by means of the ritual of the handshake.

Benitez is adamant Ferguson refused to shake his hand before the first game at Old Trafford. Ferguson insists he did not see Benitez and professes to be bemused by the whole furore.

"The local manager, in this case me, will look for the away manager and try to shake his hand," Benitez said, vowing that he would try to shake Ferguson's hand today. "If you have a DVD - that was invented years ago - you can see the first game and you can see the fact," he added.

"The proper DVD with all the images, you will see the photographer talking with him and you will see the clip. Watch the DVD and you will see who is right."

In context, it all seems hugely important; step back, and it seems ludicrous: a man in his 50s is asking a group of professionals to watch video evidence to see whether a man in his 70s deliberately refused to shake his hand.

Trivial as it seems, though, the incident highlights two things.

First, that while Benitez tries to play the calm technician, there is a slightly shrill, passive-aggressive streak to his personality, which perhaps explains why he so often leaves clubs having fallen out with owners and chairmen.

And second, that, important as this game is, in terms of the FA Cup and the season as a whole - given the title race is as good as over and the English sides are out of the Uefa Champions League - there is also a personal significance.

For neither manager is this just about winning a game; it is also about beating the other manager.

They have met 15 times before and Ferguson has the advantage in the head to head, having won eight, drawn two and lost five.

What is intriguing, though, is that Benitez came out on top in three of his last four meetings as Liverpool manager. Also, given the way the game went at Old Trafford, he could argue he had got the better of the tactical battle there.

It is simplistic to say that Benitez has worked out Ferguson, but it does seem as though something clicked midway through 2008.

In the first staging of the quarter-final last month United swept into a two-goal lead, as they had at Stamford Bridge in the league game earlier in the season when Roberto Di Matteo was still Chelsea manager. And they held that advantage till half-time.

It was a strange first half, though, with both sides having been unusually sloppy, Chelsea lacking the compactness that Benitez demands and United misplacing passes.

United were not dominating; they could easily have conceded towards the end of the half. But Benitez's double substitution definitely shifted the advantage Chelsea's way.

Eden Hazard looked livelier than Victor Moses, but more telling from a tactical point of view was the use of John Obi Mikel to release Ramires.

Mikel was withdrawn after 71 minutes of Chelsea's defeat at Southampton on Saturday when Benitez, as Ferguson did in his side's win at Sunderland, rested a number of players, while Ramires did not play at all.

It is safe to assume both will have key roles as Chelsea look to avenge the snubbed handshake today.

 

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