Brendan Rodgers has claimed Luis Suárez thrives on the controversy that Sir Alex Ferguson believes the Liverpool striker is "laden with" and fears could cost Manchester United when the great rivals meet at Old Traffordon Sunday .
The Uruguay international came in for renewed criticism following his goal in the FA Cup third-round tie against Mansfield Town on Sunday, when he handled the ball in the build-up to what proved the deciding score. The Mansfield owner, John Radford, accused Suárez of embarrassing Liverpool's directors and manager, a claim vehemently denied by the Premier League club's managing director, Ian Ayre, who said the striker "has our full support" and echoed Rodgers' view that several decisions have gone against the 25-year-old this season.
Ferguson, however, claims Suárez has benefited from the pressure placed on referees, in what could be interpreted as a warning to Howard Webb, Sunday's referee at Old Trafford, despite Football Association guidelines against managers or players discussing officials before a game.
"I never saw the [Mansfield] game so it is difficult to say whether it was a deliberate handball or not but I think the lad is laden with controversy," said the United manager. "I don't know whether he enjoys it or not – but it is something we hope we don't suffer from ourselves.
"Every club goes into it that way. When you go into a game of football you hope you don't get a bad break against you and, with the speed of the modern game, I suppose you can cherry-pick an incident every week that you say: 'That should have been a penalty kick' or 'That shouldn't have been a goal'. Things happen so quickly for the referee and the assistants to pick up."
Asked if Suárez has toned down his on-field behaviour this season, Ferguson said: "As I say, I just hope we don't suffer from some of the decisions that have gone his way in terms of that. We want it to be a good game on Sunday."
The United manager's comments prompted a wry response from Rodgers, his Liverpool counterpart. He said: "I agree that we hope they don't get the decisions that can influence the result – like last time at Anfield where a sending off [for Jonjo Shelvey] and a penalty [for United] cost us the game."
Rodgers says Suárez's reputation has made him an easy target for criticism, as evidenced by the reaction to the goal at Mansfield, but believes the furore around the striker serves only to spur him. "I really felt for Suárez last week," the Liverpool manager said. "He got absolutely vilified. It was ludicrous the amount of stuff that was said against him. The Mansfield chairman had a few drinks in him by the time he spoke.
"Don't get me wrong, there are some sports where the etiquette is important, snooker or golf for example. If you touch the ball in snooker and the other player doesn't see it, you put your hand up. That's the etiquette of the game. That doesn't happen in football. It's just the way of the game. Not just here but worldwide.
"Suárez, unfortunately given what's happened in the past, is vilified for it. But does it make a difference to him? No. If anything, it's actually fuel for his mentality because he is so strong. Luis' character is very strong and you find that with world-class players. The background noise, he can park. When he goes on to the field, all the stuff that can get into people's minds, it's not a problem. His mental fitness is very good. He is only human but he has the brain I believe to park things, which is part of what makes him world-class."
Liverpool are 21 points behind the league leaders and Ferguson admits it could be a while before they are challenging for the title again. He is also unsure if the Anfield club are improving under their new manager. "It is difficult to say. When a young manager goes to Liverpool it is a challenge," Ferguson said. "Kenny [Dalglish] going back was a challenge for him. For anyone going to that club at the moment it is a challenge because they haven't won the league for 20-odd years. It is a long time for a club like Liverpool. It is a long road back to what they used to be." Ferguson also reiterated that Wayne Rooney will not be available to face Liverpool.