Barely had the ashes cooled from the Barclays Premiership encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford nine days ago than the fire was rekindled yesterday. Daggers will be drawn again, this time at Anfield, where the best of enemies meet in the FA Cup fifth round.
The pairing of teams who have won the Cup 17 times between them was the pick of a draw that also threw up the obligatory "fairytale" tie of Colchester United away to Chelsea or Everton and was given extra spice with the announcement by Gary Neville, the United captain, that he will deny a charge of improper conduct relating to the recent match against Liverpool. By the time United get up for the Cup on Merseyside, it is conceivable that his case could be rumbling through the corridors at the Football Association.
As Rio Ferdinand celebrated his last-minute winner against Liverpool with most of his team-mates, Neville raced the length of the pitch and performed a fist-pumping, badge-kissing routine in front of the visiting team’s fans. He said in his column in The Times that although the clubs share a fierce rivalry, "no disrespect to Liverpool was intended", but added: "What are you meant to do? Smile sweetly and jog back to the halfway line?" Although the FA appears to think so, Neville, whose team-mates are reportedly refusing to give television interviews in protest at the repeated showing of the celebration, has requested a personal hearing.
With only four points separating the sides in the Premiership and the build-up to the tie — on February 18 or 19 — sure to be frenetic, the rival managers saw little need to inflame passions further. "It’s a great tie for everyone," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "The FA Cup is all about difficult ties and dramatic games. You only really appreciate what winning is all about in the cup competitions by getting through the tougher matches."
Gary Neville will renew strained acquaintances with Liverpool's supporters next month after Manchester United were handed a potentially explosive FA Cup fifth-round trip to Anfield.
The England full-back has denied a Football Association charge of improper conduct for his goal celebrations after Rio Ferdinand's last-minute winner in the league meeting between the teams at Old Trafford this month. But while he awaits a date for his hearing he can expect a hostile reception as he leads his side out in next month's tie.
Though Sir Alex Ferguson welcomed "a great tie and a hard draw", his opposite number Rafael Benítez suggested Neville would have little reason to celebrate this time around. Despite losing the Premiership match and having failed to beat United in his four games against Liverpool's bitter rivals, the Anfield manager insisted his team could progress into the quarter-finals.
"There were times last season when we played games like this where we wondered whether we could win and whether a draw would actually be a good result," Benítez admitted. "But this season we know we can beat them.
"We controlled the match at Old Trafford and we were at least at the same level as them. Now being at home will be an advantage for us. We can beat United and if you want to win trophies you have to beat the best teams out there. United are one of the best, but this will be a massive game for the supporters and everyone involved."
It will be bigger for Neville than most. The full-back turns 31 on the weekend of the tie, and age has not mellowed his ability to rile Liverpool's supporters. Having endured abuse from the travelling fans at Old Trafford, he reacted to Ferdinand's winner by sprinting fully 60 yards to pump his fists and kiss his club badge in front of the away section. His reaction prompted criticism from Greater Manchester Police and his England team-mate Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool defender.