Sunday 22 March ~
It's rare enough that Rafa Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson have an exchange of views that could be described as entertaining but they achieved it last week. It started with Benitez claiming that in his five seasons at Liverpool they had spent £100 million less on players than Man Utd. One can imagine that Sir Alex was a picture of wounded dignity as he asked a couple of the sports scientists who work for United to lay down their stop watches and clipboards for an afternoon to look into this claim. Wouldn't you know, they came up with figures to refute it.
Sir Alex duly announced that Benitez had out-spent him by £24m and that the gap would widen this summer: "There's talk about a recession but I don't think there will be one at Liverpool this year." Newspaper research in the wake of this spat suggests that the two clubs are roughly equal in net spending. But Liverpool may indeed forge ahead in the close season if the club follow through with a widely quoted promise to give Rafa Benitez at least £30m on top of what can be raised by player sales. His first target is the same one as last year, Gareth Barry, from today's opponents Aston Villa.
It was reported this week that Barry has instructed his agent not to discuss extending his contract with Villa, which is due to expire at the end of 2010-11. Even Martin O'Neill, who was vehemently opposed to losing the player last summer, seems resigned to him going if Villa don't finish fourth: "If we didn't make it, the chance to go and play at a club involved in the Champions League is not something that I would begrudge him."
Liverpool's failure to wrap up the Barry deal in August was one of the causes of the irreparable breakdown in relations between Benitez and his soon-to-depart chief executive Rick Parry. Many observers were nonetheless surprised at the Liverpool manager's dogged pursuit of the then Villa captain given that he was prepared to offload Xabi Alonso to do so. Presuming that he now aims to keep Alonso, who has had an outstanding season, it's difficult to see where Barry would fit in other than as a squad player. Then again, when you're given as much as Benitez gets you can afford to take a few gambles that don't come off. Given that Liverpool were prepared to take a loss on Robbie Keane, Villa might even have a reasonable chance of getting Barry back a few months on at half the price.