Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has risked breaching English FA rules governing discussion of officials before games, having been drawn into a debate about Luis Suarez which was initiated by Alex Ferguson.
Responding to the Manchester United manager's comment that he hoped United would not be on the wrong end of a Suarez controversy tomorrow – in itself, a veiled message to match referee Howard Webb – Rodgers said that Webb was "a very good referee, well-established in the Premier League and who refereed a World Cup final. I'm confident the game will be decided on quality and not a referee's decision."
Though the Liverpool manager, who received a warning earlier this season about his repeated comments about the way officials were handling Suarez, acknowledged that he must tread carefully, praising a referee before a match is an offence.
Ferguson himself fell foul of the FA's disciplinary arm two seasons ago by talking up Webb as "definitely the best referee in the country" two days before the game against Chelsea. Fulham's Martin Jol has also fallen foul.
There is guaranteed to be a febrile welcome at Old Trafford for Suarez, who in last February's Premier League fixture at Old Trafford refused to shake Patrice Evra's hand, having been found guilty of racially abusing him. But as Liverpool's former director of football, Damien Comolli, who signed Suarez from Ajax for £22.8m in January 2011, suggested that "victimisation" of the Uruguayan could drive him out of English football, Rodgers insisted he had no intentions of discussing with the striker the importance of avoiding a flashpoint. "No. I think he needs to be natural. He needs to be free," Rodgers said.
The Livepool boss – who declared he would not swap Suarez for United's Robin van Persie – said the Uruguayan had the ability to shut out the controversies.
"The background noise, he can park. When he goes on the field, all the stuff that can get into people's minds, it's not a problem, which is part of what makes him world class."
Rodgers offered a withering response to the Mansfield Town chairman John Radford, who launched an extraordinary attack on Suarez over the handball goal which proved the difference between the two sides in last Sunday's FA Cup third-round tie.
"I knew the Mansfield chairman was a bit off the mark and you could tell from the reaction of some players and people in the game (that he was being ridiculous)," Rodgers declared.
"Don't get me wrong. There are some sports, snooker or golf for example, where the etiquette is important. That doesn't happen in football. It's just the way of the game worldwide – not just here. Suarez, unfortunately given what's happened in the past, is vilified for it."
As for game, the 25-year-old has a habit of delivering in hostile environments – October's 2-2 Goodison derby, for example. "This is a player who hurts badly when we lose," added Rodgers. (© Independent News Service)