Benitez coy over past hostility but says ‘the league is 38 games and not one match’

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AS Neil Warnock tonight looks to go some way towards avenging the most crushing blow of his managerial career, the man in his sights has vowed to remain professional as Chelsea look to put a disappointing month behind them.

The Leeds United chief fell out with Rafael Benitez in May 2007 after the Spaniard sent out a weakened Liverpool team against Fulham on the penultimate weekend of the Premier League season.

Benitez’s Liverpool, who were due in Champions League final action a little over two weeks later, lost, a result that allowed the Cottagers to finish one point above Warnock’s relegated Blades.

It left a bitter taste in the mouth of Warnock, who in his 2007 autobiography Made in Sheffield wrote of his “hatred” for Benitez and pleasure that Liverpool went on to lose the final to AC Milan.

Tonight, the pair will meet for the first time since the spat erupted, but Benitez insists he will have no hesitation in shaking his opposite number’s hand before and after the game.

He said: “Every person has their ideas of each other. I am professional so I won’t have any problem (shaking Warnock’s hand). There will be a lot of people watching us, so we have to behave.

“I saw that he said he has an email from me threatening to sue him, but I don’t remember. It is true, but I didn’t remember it.

“I will concentrate on my job and, hopefully, we can talk about football, which is best for the fans and everyone. We need to leave things on the pitch.”

Benitez, already under pressure as Chelsea manager, will head north without suspended Gary Cahill, John-Obi Mikel and Ramires. John Terry is also missing through injury, while there is a danger many of his squad will still be feeling the after-effects of jet-lag following their marathon return trip from the World Club Cup in Tokyo, where the Blues lost Sunday’s final 1-0 to Brazialian side Corinithians.

Asked about Warnock’s belief that Benitez playing a weakened team against Fulham was a leading factor in Sheffield United’s relegation from the top flight, the Chelsea manager replied: “I am professional and will try to do my job and won’t be involved in anything. But what I will say is that the league is 38 games and not just one match.”

Benitez last brought a team to Elland Road in 2009, when his Liverpool side triumphed 1-0 in a Carling Cup third-round tie.

Only Luciano Becchio from the Leeds XI that night is still with the Yorkshire club, but one player on the home side who will be familiar to Benitez is Lee Peltier, who the Spaniard handed his professional debut to when in charge at Anfield.

Then a teenager, the Leeds captain made his bow in the League Cup against Reading and was later selected in the starting XI for a Champions League tie against Galatasaray in Turkey.

Now at Leeds, the one-time Huddersfield Town defender admits all his team-mates are eagerly looking forward to tonight’s tie as they look to join neighbours Bradford City, who last week famously knocked out Arsenal, in the draw for the last four.

Peltier said: “It was good to see Bradford win, as everyone expected Arsenal to go there and win 6-0. They had a strong team so all credit to Bradford for going out there and showing everyone they could do it.

“In a strange way, Bradford’s win could make it a bit harder for us. Chelsea will have watched it and thought they don’t want the same thing to happen to them.

“Arsenal didn’t go to Bradford expecting to lose and I am sure Chelsea will come here with a strong squad and believe if they perform to the best of their ability they will win.

“But we have got a good chance against Chelsea. You saw last week at Bradford that anything can happen in the Cup.

“With the run we have been on, we are going into the game full of confidence.

“The atmosphere will be unbelievable, night games always bring that extra bit out.

“It is going to be more or less a full house and the lads are looking forward to getting out there to play in front of everyone. We want to reach the semi-finals.”