It was a strange sight at Wembley on Sunday. Richard Dunne was dwelling on the ball in his own half, when, with a flash of red, the ball had been intercepted and despatched into the Aston Villa goal at a lightening pace. Upon reflection, spectators performed a double take. It was not Darren Fletcher, Wayne Rooney, nor even the ghost of Carlos Tevez who had charged at Dunne, but a certain ‘lazy’ £30.75m Bulgarian…
Dimitar Berbatov has divided opinion amongst Manchester United fans ever since he joined the club on August 31st 2008 for £30.75m, a club record fee for the Red Devils. The fee paid for the player, and his age (Berbatov was 29 when he signed) meant Manchester United fans expected the player to become the focal point of their attack. Ferguson also bought the player with Europe in mind, believing the former Spurs striker would provide United with a different dimension. However, Berbatov’s first season with United was not the success story many predicted. Berbatov himself admitted to the Times in February 2009:
“Half the people like me, the other half might not, but throughout my life I’ve had high expectations for myself, so I just try to make the non-believers into believers.”
To an extent, Ferguson’s team selection suggested he was a ‘non-believer’. As recently as last month, Berbatov was on the bench for another big game, with Wayne Rooney stealing the plaudits again at the San Siro. The following day, James Ducker of the Times pointed out that Berbatov’s omission against AC Milan meant that he had started just eight of United’s 20 most high-profile matches since signing for United.
The Bulgarian received his most fervent criticism in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley last April however. His tame penalty, tapped towards the bottom corner for Tim Howard to make the simplest of saves, summed up the contribution of a player low on confidence, and struggling with the weight of expectation. With Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez providing pace and power in attack, Berbatov appeared to be slowing United’s entire game down, with many coming to the conclusion it was only a matter of time before Ferguson lost patience with the Bulgarian and admitted his mistake. However, despite being the fan’s disquiet, Ferguson didn’t sign a big name replacement for Tevez or Ronaldo (apologies to Mickey Owen) in the summer or January, and Berbatov is arguably beginning to repay his faith.
Many United fans would probably criticise this article by pointing out they always had faith in the Bulgarian, and the media has been overly critical of the player. For example, statistics fail to convey the audacity of the goal Berbatov created for Cristiano Ronaldo against West Ham in October last season. Anyone watching could have been in little doubt that they had witnessed genius… a lightning turn and instinctive flick past James Collins was worth the entrance fee alone. Further, just as Rooney lived within the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo last season, Berbatov has had to adjust to a style of play geared towards Ronaldo and now Rooney-quick passing, and lots of pace. However, he still managed to score 9 goals in the league and claim 8 assists. Further, this season Berbatov has already equaled his tally of nine league goals from last term, whilst struggling in November and December with niggling injuries.
The Bulgarian is noticeably more confident at Old Trafford now, and has struck up an excellent understanding with Valencia, spotting passes others do not see, and executing them perfectly for Valencia to use his pace and crossing ability to create assists for Rooney. Against Aston Villa, Berbatov also appeared to be free from the pressure of playing with a Wayne Rooney/Cristiano Ronaldo figure, becoming fulcrum of the United attack, linking well with Owen in particular.
Berbatov’s exquisite first touch, eye for a pass, and ability to keep possession, are now being coupled with an understanding of the speed and pace of United’s game. Further, especially when playing in a 4-4-2 formating, Rooney appears happier to play as a traditional centre forward, allowing Berbatov to occupy the space that the England talisman has left free.
Notwithstanding his progression at United, there are still question marks over Berbatov’s partnership with Wayne Rooney, and his ability to fit into United’s 4-3-3 formation that Ferguson favours in Europe. Further, the Bulgarian should be scoring a few more goals, although contrary to popular belief, Berbatov was never prolific for Tottenham in the league, scoring twelve and fifteen goals in consecutive seasons at White Hart Lane.
Ferguson knows a player when he sees one, and the real test for Berbatov will come at the end of this season when the Sir Alex dips into the transfer market. Ferguson even persisted with Juan Sebastian Veron for two seasons, so Berbatov was always likely to be awarded time at Old Trafford. However, If the languid Bulgarian continues in his current vein of form, he might justify his manager’s patience yet…
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