When Manchester United host Chelsea in the pick of the FA Cup quarter-finals at Old Trafford on Sunday, for the first time in football history we could be about to see an entire stadium of rival fans bound together in their hatred for one of the managers in the dug-out.
Poor old Rafa, eh? Just when you think the embittered Chelsea boss could just have ridden out the storm that threatened to engulf him last week (a storm of his own making, it must be said), he is being asked to pitch up at the only other stadium that could rival Stamford Bridge in their pure loathing of the former Liverpool boss – and that definitely is a ‘fact’.
Another fact is that nobody at Old Trafford on Sunday will hate Benitez as much as his opposite number, and with Sir Alex Ferguson desperate to put one over on his old adversary, Rafa is in for a tough old evening.
Benitez knew that this fixture was on the cards in the Premier League, when the two sides are due to meet next month, but to ask him to go and be subjected to it in the FA Cup as well is bordering on cruel and you can be sure that all 76,000 supporters, home and away, will be telling the Spaniard exactly what they think of him.
You could be forgiven for thinking he perhaps picked that much-changed team in the last round at Middlesbrough hoping to avoid this fate, and when his team duly went and won, he thought he’d go off on one post-match in the hope of being put out of his misery. It didn’t happen, and Rafa must run the gauntlet on Sunday.
Can you imagine being Benitez walking out from his dug-out to the technical area at Old Trafford?
Not only is he going to have Manchester United fans giving him pelters because of his Liverpool connections, he’s going to have the travelling Chelsea contingent in the away end doing exactly the same, and you’d have to have skin like a rhino not to be affected.
To be honest, little appears to get to Benitez (which is just as well, given how his Chelsea career has gone so far) and whatever you think of him as a manager – he certainly divides opinion – you can’t question his bottle and taking the Blues fans to task might just work in his favour.
The fans seemed a little less vociferous in the 1-0 win over West Brom last weekend, even adding a bit of humour into proceedings with some banners, which, ironically, are exactly what Benitez once said the Bridge faithful were not any good at creating.
If there is to be an uneasy truce, inept performances and results such as last night’s dreadful 1-0 defeat at Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League need to be eradicated immediately.
But unfortunately for Benitez, the next bad result is coming on Sunday at the place he’d least want it to.
Manchester United are 4/5 to beat Chelsea, and I don’t see any other result. The draw is 27/10, with the away win a 31/10 chance, but this is a home win all day long.
The ‘wounded animal’ analogy is not one I normally buy into, but United will be driven on by the perceived injustice of their Champions League exit to Real Madrid on Tuesday.
I have no wish to re-open the Nani red card debate because I’m bored of it now, but neither Ferguson nor the players will be forgetting the feeling of being knocked out in such controversial circumstances any time soon and rather than wallow, I fully expect United to come out fighting in the two remaining competitions they can win.
The Red Devils may have ended up defeated, but they were in control of the tie when Nani was sent off in the 56th minute and that reverse was a rare setback at Old Trafford.
Ferguson’s side have won 29 out of their last 37 home games in all competitions and 17 of their 18 domestic games in front of the Stretford End this season.
And it’s not even like Chelsea are playing that well. The Blues have won just five of their last 12 games and only two of their last eight away matches, at Championship side Middlesbrough and a modest Sparta Prague outfit in the Europa League.
The way they performed the last time they were in Manchester, a 2-0 loss to City as recently as a fortnight ago, was atrocious and gives you no confidence whatsoever that they can beat the best team in the country on their own patch.
And with Benitez prioritising a top-four finish over cup glory (ah, the romance of the cup), it may not even be a full-strength Chelsea team that takes to the field, with this match sandwiched between those Europa League commitments against Steaua Bucharest (the second leg is on Thursday).
United have won six of the last seven meetings at Old Trafford and whatever way I look at it, the 4/5 on a home win looks nailed on as Ferguson is all set to have the last laugh on Benitez.