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What began as a friendship between two of the game's sharpest minds has long been crushed under the weight of personal egos and professional pressures

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By Liam Twomey

After the pain, anger and speculation of the past week, Sir Alex Ferguson may view the visit of Rafa Benitez and Chelsea on Sunday as a welcome distraction in more ways than one.

Of course, FA Cup success can only provide relatively scant consolation for Tuesday’s acrimonious departure from the Champions League at the hands of a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid. Yet the challenge of reclaiming a proud trophy which has eluded Manchester United for almost a decade should help focus minds once again.

The occasion also provides Sir Alex himself with the opportunity to resume hostilities with Benitez, one of his favourite and most persistent managerial nemeses.

The barbed statements, pointed comments and thinly-veiled jibes which have fuelled and perpetuated this rivalry are so numerous and unequivocal, it becomes hard to imagine a time when things were different. But the antipathy which now exists between the two men was once a friendship, long ago crushed under the weight of personal egos and professional pressures.

Enmity was nowhere to be found in 1999, for example, when Benitez, having recently left Extremadura, spent a week at Carrington observing the coaching methods of Sir Alex and his then-assistant Steve McClaren. Nor was there in 2005, when the United boss sent the Spaniard a letter congratulating him on Liverpool's miraculous Champions League triumph in Istanbul.

Exactly how and when it all soured is not entirely clear. Benitez insists the coolness set in during the 2008-09 season, when his Liverpool side pushed United all the way in the Premier League title race and beat them home and away in head-to-head meetings.

Backed into a corner, Sir Alex started swinging, talking about referees and fixtures, and questioning a seemingly resurgent Liverpool's staying power. Benitez responded with his now infamous 'facts' speech.

Liverpool were seven points clear of their bitter rivals at that stage, having played two games more. United went on to win the title by four points, and the Spaniard was judged to have come off worse. The biggest loser, however, was the relationship between the two men.

Many of Sir Alex’s managerial disputes are manufactured out of necessity, rather than borne out of emotion. The likes of Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan and Arsene Wenger were pursued ruthlessly because they were perceived as a threat to the Scot's dominance. Once their teams fell away, there remained little fuel for personal animosity.

But there is a sense it is different with Benitez. There was no sign of any mellowing when the Spaniard left Liverpool in June 2010. "I think everyone expected it," the Scot told reporters. "If he hadn’t signed a contract the previous season then I'm sure he'd have gone before."

And even after two years away from English football, Sir Alex could not resist re-igniting old feuds when Benitez arrived at Chelsea in November, just in time to lead the Blues in an ultimately vain bid to win the Club World Cup. "He's very lucky because on his CV in two weeks' time he could have two World Championships to his name and have had nothing to do with the teams," he insisted.

Benitez, for his part, revealed in January that he still believes it is "obvious" that the United boss regularly exerts undue influence over referees. The nature of Tuesday’s Champions League defeat, then, with Old Trafford in uproar at Nani's contentious sending-off, may well have given him particular pleasure.

But the Spaniard has his own worries. His caretaker spell at Chelsea has been a disaster in both PR and footballing terms and, after Thursday's limp Europa League first-leg defeat to Steaua Bucharest, the FA Cup could well represent the last realistic opportunity to salvage a trophy for his CV. If he can keep the dream alive while ending his old rival's hopes of a league and cup double, then even better.

For Sir Alex, too, the desire to ensure that this Chelsea spell remains an unqualified blott on Benitez's copy book could rank highly alongside the possibility of adding further silverware to his heaving collection.

At his pre-match press conference, the Scot pointedly refused to publicly take aim at the Spaniard again. "I'm not going to kick anyone when they're lying down," he said. "It's not my style." That may be, but he will be instructing his wounded United side to be less merciful.

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