Manchester United followers know full well that Alex Ferguson is a world-class wind-up merchant, and that, were he chewing gum on anyone else’s watch they’d be queuing up to have a pop.

Rafael Benitez’s rap-sheet against the Scot – in which he was accused of everything bar ruining Robbie Keane’s confidence with that ‘only worth £0.5m not £5m’ jibe some seasons ago – was ‘factually’ correct, sure, but it made the Liverpool manager look like a man with way too much time on his hands.

Both he and his supporters have portrayed it as Benitez simply standing up to Fergie (a man with “no dignity” according to Gilesy; “a bully” says Dunphy); laying down a no-more-bullshit marker; possibly trying to create a siege mentality within his title-chasing squad. Maybe that was his intention, but it was a distraction that needlessly piled pressure on his players.

Ferguson, who’s come out of it looking a semi-rational human being, says judging by the “venom” with which he was attacked, Benitez must have been “disturbed.”

Perhaps it’s the kidney stones (two ops and a third pending – ouch) but Rafa’s mood was certainly mean as he took Fergie to task for all but running football.

What did managers do of a Thursday before press conferences became obligatory? Oh yeah, “coach”, which, if I remember correctly (and how could one forget given Rafa’s penchant for repetition) was what the men who gave him £20.3m to buy and then rest Robbie Keane suggested he should stick to last year.

That the Premier League leaders could only draw with fourth-from-bottom Stoke (starting the game with his two top strikers on the bench, and Keane sat idly by throughout) while United cruised to victory against a heartless Chelsea side, made the Spaniard’s carefully-scripted swipe seem even more ill-advised and premature at the very least.

Explaining his eruption, Benitez, who was riled by Ferguson’s suggestion that Liverpool were bound to get nervy during the run-in, said it’s a sign a team is feeling the heat when they start talking about others. Which is exactly the message he himself sent out.

Credit crunch

As for Chelsea, the club destined in Peter Kenyon’s mind for global domination and popularity not to so long ago, is not exactly brimming with confidence, with speculation growing that owner Roman Abramovich may be thinking of cutting his losses.

The players’ sudden disinterest (my, didn’t John Terry’s pre-Christmas sending-off and suspension seem convenient) would appear to mirror that of their billionaire chairman, whose attendance at games is increasingly sporadic.

Though the evidence has been there for some time that, as a team, the Pensioners have peaked (possibly too AC Milan-like age-wise for the hurly burly of English football) the club are engaged in more cost-cutting than spending of late, with even a man of Abramovich’s means reportedly feeling the credit crunch.

Having invested £578m of his dubiously-accumulated personal fortune – which is thought to have ‘dwindled’ by £3bn to ‘just’ £7bn – to buy a winning team (giving rise to a £700m ‘soft debt’ he would be owed should he sell), the man who effectively pays several stars half-a-million sterling a month has now decided enough’s enough; that the business must pay its way. Fat chance.

The cooling of his love affair with Chelsea FC might be traced to his relationship breakdown with Jose Mourinho (who was at Old Trafford to see the pressure mount on ‘Big Phil’ Scolari’s shoulders) and the Russian could be forgiven for feeling like this particular game of football roulette isn’t worth the gamble, or the hassle.

He bought them as a plaything to begin with; now he may well be on the look-out for another slightly-less-expensive hobby.