January 14, 2009 |

With Man U’s almost biblical thumping of Chelsea at Old Trafford and two very winnable make-up games in hand, the game is truly afoot. Should they take all six points on offer from Wigan and Bolton, the hated enemy to the East is poised to usurp the top spot in the Premiership by a single point. And we will not be able to lift a foot to stop it.

These are indeed nervy times for the lads in red and their patient supporters. So it seems ill-timed that our brave, if not obstinate, leader has chosen this time to fire verbal salvoes at the Man U camp. What is worse, SAF hasn’t needed to say a thing. The big stick that is his squad is doing all the talking for him.

The timing of Rafa’s outburst is most alarming, especially since it coincides with a spluttering Stoke City performance and the Manc hounds nipping ever closer at his heels. It takes on the greasy pall of smoke escaping a machine under severe pressure, and one that failed to perform at peak capacity.

The tacit criticism (tinged with a splash of remorse, perhaps) after leaving ₤40m worth of offensive fire power patrolling the sidelines while his solo attacker was stymied (reads snuffed) probably didn’t make his mood any lighter before he stepped up to the podium.

But succumbing to pressure seems out of character for a man who is no stranger to the unique pressures of managing starting elevens perched atop a League table. He did it with Valencia. Twice. He weathered the withering criticism leveled against him with his rotation policy. He’s been the best in Europe. Nearly twice. And, for better or for worse, he’s done it his way.

But Rafa no longer has the luxury of lessened expectations, and as 2008 became 2009 – and  his Liverpool Football Club were still number 1on the charts – his ability to hide behind his methodology disappeared with December 31st. That was only further cemented when, after our tie, the omnipresent Red Devils proved that they have not quite been exorcised by unceremoniously skewering the Blues with their usual brand of attacking flair. Now that he is under the most powerful magnifying glass in world football, his days of settling for a spot in Europe are over.

The assumption shared by many of us, right or wrong, is that he has collected and assembled all the pieces in his Grand Design, and now he just needs them to work. All eleven cylinders worth. And it was evident to everyone watching on Saturday that they just weren’t.

The FA is said to be holding “unofficial” talks with both managers to calm the waters. We can all eagerly await what will surely be the earth-shattering results of these informal wrist slaps.

Yes, Sir Alex has long used his unassailed pedestal to shout down his own brand of hypocrisy. And, yes, Rafa has just cause to lend voice to his condemnations thereof – but perhaps now is not the best time to let the whole world hear them. Because between those oh-so-carefully chosen English lines is where everyone is reading. And they are speaking volumes.