MANCHESTER City's Patrick Vieira has re-opened the verbal warfare with Sir Alex Ferguson which his club's manager Roberto Mancini is so desperate to avoid, by declaring that Manchester United are given an unfair advantage by referees.
Vieira equipped Ferguson with ammunition eight days ago by claiming that the return of Paul Scholes to United's side was a sign of "weakness" and though there were signs after Ferguson declared City's recall of Carlos Tevez as even more "desperate" that Mancini and his assistants did not welcome the distraction, Vieira ploughed in again.
"When United play at home they get some advantage that other teams don't get," City's football development executive said. "I think when you go to United, Madrid, Barcelona, or Milan, when the referees referee these kind of games, it's always difficult to go against these kinds of teams. This is the way it is."
Ferguson may well respond at his weekly press conference to comments which appear to have roots in the strong 89th-minute penalty claim from Fulham's Danny Murphy which referee Michael Oliver turned down - allowing United to open a three-point lead at the top of the Premier League on Monday night.
Vieira was bullish about City's prospects: "This is our moment. Since the start of the season we've been the best team and played the best football. I believe the club deserves it. [But] when you are first you have the advantage, they are favourites."
Vieira's second set of negative comments about United in a week flew in the face of City midfielder Gareth Barry's declaration after the side's disappointing 1-1 draw at Stoke City on Saturday that the club should not "speak too much about them" - in reference to United. The former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who ran United close in 2009, also said yesterday that so-called "mind games" do not win titles and that the best way to challenge United now is to shut out anything but football.
"The main thing I would say is to focus on your job - it's about good players and a good team," Benitez said. "I was not following this argument between them. I know that it depends on the players more than the managers. The good thing when you are at this stage of the season is just to concentrate on your team and your performance."
Benitez, who discussed United amicably with Rio Ferdinand at Soccerex yesterday, tweeted: "Why is Viera (sic) so concerned with Man Utd....2 comments in a week or so... c'mon maaaaaan let it go!"
Benitez contributed to a verbal battle with Ferguson in January 2009, by producing a handwritten list of "facts" which included his own assertion that referees are intimidated by the Glaswegian. "To be fair, my press conference, that was because I knew it was the right time to do it," Benitez said. "And afterwards we won 11 games - so people were like, 'Yeah, Rafa [was to blame].' That was not true. [United] were just winning more games than us, that's it." Liverpool did indeed finish strongly - winning 12 out of 18 Premier League games and the last five of the 2008/9 season including a 4-1 win at Old Trafford. It was the four drawn games immediately after Benitez's "facts" press conference which proved decisive for a side which had been eight points clear of United, having played three more games, at the time.
Benitez said City could take strength from their 6-1 win at Old Trafford last autumn, in the way that Liverpool did from their 4-1 win in 2009. "I have seen City all year and they have done well. They have the quality, they have the experience and they have the character so for me they don't need too much. It's just to say, 'We are good enough, we will win'." Asked if he had admiration for Fergie, the Spaniard said: "As a manager you have to analyse the CV of anyone and he has won a lot of trophies so that is fine. But at the same time when we were playing against them I was the manager of another team. He has done a great job in England. I have experience in three different countries so you have to adapt to the situation." But Benitez said Ferguson's barbed comments did not escape rival managers' attention. "Yeah, as a manager you have a responsibility to read the press."
Mancini, who began with a pitch-side altercation with Mario Balotelli at Carrington, could at least welcome back Vincent Kompany to training. Joleon Lescott trained alone with a physio, trying to shake off a groin problem. Carlos Tevez was due to play for the reserves at Morecambe last night.