PATRICK Vieira has again heightened tensions between Manchester City and Manchester United by claiming Alex Ferguson's team receive preferential treatment from referees, saying "this is the way it is".
In an interview with the BBC on behalf of the Football Against Hunger charity, the Manchester City executive, who received a withering response from Ferguson last week following claims in an interview with a British newspaper that the return of Paul Scholes was a ''sign of weakness'', risked escalating the war of the words between the two clubs with his latest remarks.
But in an effort to defuse the situation, the former Arsenal captain later issued an angry statement attacking the BBC, claiming his comments had been taken out of context and stressing he was discussing a wider issue, and not focusing on referee Michael Oliver's controversial decision not to award Fulham a late penalty during Monday's 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford.
Vieira said: "I made it clear in the interview, twice, that I wanted to avoid criticising Manchester United and even stated that I didn't watch the United game against Fulham and had not seen the incident to which the reporter referred. That part of the interview was ignored and my comments were taken completely out of context."
Vieira's comments about United, and officials in the interview -- aired two days after Oliver failed to award an 89th-minute penalty following Michael Carrick's apparent foul on Danny Murphy -- are unlikely to be well received by Ferguson, however.
"When United play at home they get some advantage that other teams don't get," Vieira said. "I think when you go to United, Madrid, Barcelona, or Milan, when the referees referee these kind of games, it's always difficult to go against these kind of teams.
"This is the way it is. It's something the teams who are used to winning get all the time, so we need to win games so we have this advantage in the future."
Vieira's comments prompted a swift response from United defender Rio Ferdinand, who tweeted: "Why is Vieira so concerned with Man Utd... 2 comments in a week or so... c'mon maaaaaan let it go!''
Ferguson, who may respond to Vieira's comments next Wednesday at his weekly press conference, was dismissive of the Frenchman's remarks about Scholes, insisting that Roberto Mancini's decision to restore Carlos Tévez to his squad following a lengthy dispute was the true sign of desperation. But Vieira claims that the return of Tévez, who scored for City reserves against Morecambe at the Globe Arena last night, was a positive development for Mancini and his team.
"We're glad Carlos is back," Vieira said. "The quality of these kind of players will be really important at this stage of the season. The issue was between him and the club. The players were really pleased to see him back.
''It's important not to lose focus; so many things can happen. People try to build this fire between the clubs. The heat is going to get more and more."
While Vieira and Ferguson exchange verbal blows as the two clubs challenge for the Premier League title, former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has urged Mancini to ignore any barbs from Old Trafford.
Benitez became embroiled in a bitter war of words with Ferguson during the 2008-09 title run-in, when he produced a list of 'facts' in January 2009 to show that the United manager benefited from soft treatment at the hands of the Football Association in relation to comments about referees. The fallout from the row dominated the remainder of the campaign.
But Benitez, out of work since being sacked by Inter Milan 14 months ago, claims that Ferguson's 'mind games' will have no effect if Mancini turns a deaf ear to the Scot. "The main thing I would say to Mancini is to focus on your job -- it's about good players and a good team." Benitez said.
"I am not following this argument between them because I know that it depends on the players more than the managers.
"When you are at the top as a club and are fighting with the other contenders you can't have problems with the other managers. I don't think it's about this manager or this manager, it's about the position of the team. If your team is good enough, it doesn't matter what the managers say."
Although United moved three points clear of City by defeating Fulham on Monday, Benítez claims Mancini's team remain capable of winning the title.
"It seems United have a little bit more confidence because they have experience in this situation,'' he said. ''But if you analyse the City squad, they have players with a lot of experience at the maximum level, so I think they can win as well."