Manchester United enigma Dimitar Berbatov still to convince Old Trafford doubters

27 February 2009 05:12
Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur Kick-off: Sun Feb 28, 3.00pm; Wembley Stadium, London TV: Sky Sports 1 (14:30-17:30), Sky Sports HD1 (14:30-17:30) Radio: BBC Radio 5 Live

Fantastic was Sir Alex Ferguson's assessment of Berbatov against Inter Milan. Conceptually Berbatov was deployed as a lone striker. In the event he was almost crushed in the rush by team-mates, particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, eager to tear down Inter's wooden defences.

Ferguson saw industry in his performance, others saw indolence at walking pace. "If I were Alex I would get rid of Berba. Lazy." The point of view arrived via text to the phone of a United devotee. I'd like to tell you it came from Harry Redknapp, cooking a little Carling Cup mischief before Sunday's game. It didn't but it is a view widely held.

Berbatov is cursed by biomechanics that have attached velvet feet to reluctant legs. He moves as if running were beneath him, compelled to tread lightly for fear of getting his boots dirty. He wears the No.9 shirt when No10 is more his game; teasing, probing, pulling; negotiating gaps like a pick-pocket in Trafalgar Square.

Berbatov has hit 12 goals in 27 appearances, the same number as Alan Smith managed in 61 and Garry Birtles in 63. The mention of the latter is not meant to demean but to demonstrate that despite appearances Berbatov puts more on the plate than his detractors might think. But at a cost of 30 million smackers patience forms no part of the deal.

The deft touch and quick feet are part of the United credo. So too is hard work. Eric Cantona is the dressing-room phantom that haunts Berbatov's work. When the occasion demanded it Eric the King sauntered with a shovel in his hand. He also had the gait of a guardsman, chest out, chin up. With a walk like that it was easy to create the impression that he was taking it to the opposition on his own terms, which he was, of course.

Berbatov has none of Cantona's overt aggression. He is not out there righting wrongs, campaigning with conviction. He inhabits a quieter space, just as imaginative, just as intuitive but when the pass fails we see a slacker. When it comes off we describe it as effortless, which, depending on the circumstances, can amount to the same thing.

In a revealing interview earlier this year Sir Bobby Charlton spoke of his conversion from doubter to apologist. "First of all I was very critical of him, thinking, 'Look at that. As soon as he loses the ball he stops running and starts walking, as if to say 'somebody else'll do it'. And I thought, 'He must be a good player if he can afford to do that'.

"It's been gradual. I've understood his really great skill, his awareness, and his physical strength. He's a massive talent, frustrating sometimes. Instinctively I think if I've lost the ball I want to chase after it. I want to make up for the mistake I've made. Maybe like George Best you've got to accept him for what he is."

Berbatov was on Ferguson's radar at Bayer Leverkusen. While he had Ruud van Nistelrooy leading the line his need was not as great as Tottenham's. Louis Saha was worth the punt on paper and would have made a serious contribution had his knees not buckled in battle.

Berbatov has been in situ only six months. His exhaustive transfer wiped out his pre season. If Ferguson is happy with progress then so should we be. Ferguson is almost Freudian in his ability to read the mind of a footballer, to assess his needs and meet them. In return he expects undiluted commitment and courage, on the ball as well as in the tackle.

"If the boss is happy then so am I. I think he was happy in Milan," Berbatov said. "Sometimes the concentration is not 100 per cent just before the final pass. The boss is telling me all the time. Concentration. Concentrate and you score. Then the team can take advantage."

A year ago Berbatov scored the equalising penalty in the extra-time Carling Cup win over Chelsea. The champagne moment adorns the reception at White Hart Lane. Redknapp sacrificed his heavy hitters in Thursday's Uefa Cup exit against Shakhtar Donesk to ensure his strongest line-up for the Carling Cup.

Ferguson in contrast promised seven changes from the side that faced Inter, the Carling Cup very much a mission for his emerging players. It is a fair bet Berbatov will not start. Unthinkable a year ago. That is why he left White Hart Lane, to fulfil a wider ambition. A player passes this way only once. Forty years ago wish fulfilment could have been his at Spurs. Not now, a point he made before the match in Milan.

"I came here to win the Champions League. Every player needs to develop. That's why I came here, to develop my game more and more. I'm happy. The future will show if I was right."

And the prospect of facing Tottenham? "Every game is important. It is not about this game or that game. We must win them all. I'm looking forward to the game not because it is Tottenham but because it is a final at Wembley, another cup. And we are the favourites to win it, I think."

Source: Telegraph