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Title war heats up as Rafa takes aim at Ferguson

LIVERPOOL manager Rafa Benitez launched a blistering attack at his Manchester United counterpart Alex Ferguson's unpunished abuse of referees and accusations that the league is conspiring against his title defense.

Ferguson "is the only manager in the league that cannot be punished" for criticizing referees, Benitez, reading from a prepared statement, said on Friday.

Benitez complained that the Football Association has been too lenient when dealing with Ferguson's attacks on refs, despite the launch of a high-profile "Respect" campaign aimed at improving behavior toward officials.

The only United reaction came from Bryan Robson, the former captain who serves as the club's global ambassador. He expressed surprise that Benitez delivered the "staged" statement instead of concentrating on the match at Stoke in the Premier League.

"Benitez has come out with a rant today which is unbelievable," Robson said. "I think the boss has got one over on him already."

In May, Ferguson was cleared of improper conduct charges over comments made about referee Martin Atkinson and Keith Hackett, the general manager of Professional Game Match Officials, after United was eliminated from the FA Cup by Portsmouth.

Ferguson said Atkinson's display was "unacceptable" and "on Portsmouth's side."

"He was not punished," Benitez said. "He is the only manager in the league that cannot be punished for these things. We had a meeting in Manchester with managers and FA about the 'Respect' campaign and I was very clear: Forget the campaign because Mr. Ferguson was killing the referees, killing Mr. Atkinson, killing Mr. Hackett. But he is not punished. How can you talk about the 'Respect' campaign and criticize the referee every single week? ...

"Every time we go to Old Trafford and the United staff are always going man to man with the referees, especially at halftime when they walk close to the referees and they are talking and talking."

Liverpool leads Chelsea atop the league standings by three points with United four points further adrift.

Ferguson, who has been in charge at Old Trafford since 1986, said last week the club's title defense was being "handicapped by the Premier League" because United had away games during the first half of the season.

The Spaniard hinted that Ferguson might be uneasy that Liverpool was leading the league. "He is complaining about everything, that everybody is against United," Benitez said. "But the second half of the season will see them playing at home against all the teams at the top of the table, it is a fantastic advantage. Maybe they are nervous because we are at the top of the table. I want to be clear, I do not want to play mind games too early, although they seem to want to start."


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