Friday’s Papers: Rafa outsmarts Fergie

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As Easter Sunday’s ‘˜Grand Slam Sunday’ draws closer and the mouthwatering clash that is in prospect between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford, we take a look at what Friday morning’s newspapers are saying ahead of the critical Premier League match.

Ian Herbert of The Independent writes of how Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson’s idea to get it publicly recognised that his midfield ace Christiano Ronaldo needs protection from referees after being singled out as a danger man by opposition, was quickly exposed by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.

The inference from Benitez was there for all to hear: that the United manager is hoping referee Steve Bennett ‘“ whom he famously accused of failing to protect Ronaldo after sending the winger off in a Manchester derby defeat two years ago ‘“ will be influenced. “Ferguson is clever and has a lot of experience,” Benitez said. “After a difficult game [Portsmouth in the FA Cup] he was talking about referees, and before an important game [Sunday’s] he is talking about protecting Ronaldo. The referees, though, have experience and they will know Ferguson. This kind of treatment must be the same for all the teams and all the players.”

Similarly James Ducker of The Times explains that since the departure of Jose Mourinho from the Premier League, Benitez has needed a manager to have a fiery public battle of words with. And this week it appears he has found his opposition in Ferguson.

With José Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager, long gone, Rafael BenÍtez needs someone to spar with and the Liverpool manager served only to raise the temperature before Sunday’s eagerly awaited showdown at Old Trafford by accusing Sir Alex Ferguson of attempting to influence the referee.

Ducker goes on to quote Benitez, replying to Ferguson’s comments about Ronaldo, that the dream partnership of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres deserves equal ‘˜protection’.

Benitez believes that it is just as important that Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s two most creative players, are given protection. ‘œFerguson is very clever and has a lot of experience,’ the Spaniard said. ‘œI don’t know what he was thinking about exactly, but if you need to protect Ronaldo, you also need to protect Torres and Gerrard and all the skilful players in the league.’

Liverpool travel to Old Trafford on Sunday to face arch rivals United with a 1.30pm kick-off. The match is live on Sky Sports and is followed by Chelsea vs Arsenal.