RAFAEL BENITEZ has accused Alex Ferguson of being scared of his Liverpool side and talking “too much” about other teams.
The Anfield chief, despite having the Champions League showdown with Chelsea tonight as his immediate objective, could not resist another swipe at the Manchester United chief as the Barclays Premier League race reaches boiling point.
Benitez was responding to claims from Ferguson that the loser of the Liverpool-Chelsea quarter-final will then be United’s biggest challenger for the title because they will only have one competition to contend with.
Benitez will have skipper Steven Gerrard fit following a minor groin problem and Sami Hyypia (knee) and Yossi Benayoun (hamstring) available for the first leg with Chelsea.
But the fierce battle with United for the domestic title is clearly Benitez’s driving inspiration.
He said of Ferguson’s claims: “It is not mind games, I think it maybe is that he is a little bit scared (of us).”
Liverpool took over at the top of the table on Saturday evening with a late winner by Benayoun at Fulham.
But less than 24 hours later, United produced a stunning comeback victory over Aston Villa with the decisive goal coming in the fourth minute of injury-time from 17-year-old Federico Macheda.
That grabbed the initiative back for the Old Trafford club, but Benitez has come out fighting.
He said: “I do not have a problem with United. Clearly one of us, either Chelsea or us, will end up focusing just on the Premier League after this.
“I think Alex will be supporting Liverpool in this tie because he knows we are the bigger threat now. If we continue in the Champions League maybe he will think we are tired. If we are not in this competition then he knows that we will be a (bigger) threat in the Premier League.
“If Chelsea are not in the competition, then he knows they will then be a threat also in the league. But he will lose anyway, whoever goes out, because they will still be a big threat to United.
“You have to prepare well for every single Premier League game, it is tough (to be in the Champions League as well). So he will clearly be supporting us tomorrow and next week.
“I would like to be worried about both competitions, it means we will continue to be successful.
“We just concentrate on our team, while he likes to talk too much about other teams.”
Benitez claims he was unmoved by United’s late heroics against Villa, saying: “We knew there would be situations like this, with us one point ahead, or one point behind. And everyone knows five minutes (of injury time) at Old Trafford is a very long time.
“I watched the game, but once United scored their second you felt they would win the game.
“He (Ferguson) is in the driving seat now and in a better position, but there is still a long way to go and we have confidence. We are pushing them and we will push them until the end.”
But before Liverpool can lock horns again with United, they must face a Chelsea side who knocked them out of this competition in the semi-finals last season.
A John Arne Riise own goal in the first-leg at Anfield ultimately put Liverpool out, Chelsea winning 4-3 on aggregate after the Stamford Bridge second game.
Benitez said: “It is not a good time for either of us to be playing the other. It is a big challenge for both teams. They have a good team with experience and a manager with experience. This game is 50-50. I have great respect for a massive club and a very good team. We are both playing in big competitions. We are both big teams.
“We have beaten them twice this season in the league, it will give us confidence, but this is a different competition and it will be down to just one or two mistakes.
“Keeping a clean sheet is important in the first game for both teams, I would prefer to play at Anfield second, but that is not the case so we must get on with it.”
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