Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Time for Dimitar Berbatov to seize the moment for Manchester United

From the hyperactive Wayne Rooney they turn to the languid Dimitar Berbatov to see off Chelsea and Bayern Munich inside five days. The good news is that Berbatov has already scored three times against Germany's grandest club. Less encouraging is that Rooney's replacement as Manchester United's chief striker posted all three while at Bayer Leverkusen from 2001 to 2006.

A £30.75m centre-forward comes off the bench to hunt the two wins United need to disprove the accusation that they are a one-man band.

Berbatov is an international who has played in two Champions League finals and scored 32 times in European competition. Hardly the bare bones of United's squad. Yet the success of his elevation will depend on his response to the urgency of this five-day test and the team's ability to survive the psychological jolt of seeing their best player on crutches.

The expectation back in August was that Sir Alex Ferguson would deploy Rooney and Berbatov together but the United manager has favoured a five-man midfield with Rooney in a luxury Alan Shearer role. Tactical considerations aside, the implication is that Ferguson's faith in Berbatov has dimmed to the point where Bulgaria's six-times footballer of the year exists to give Rooney a rest or supply an extra weapon when United are in desperate need of a goal.

Like Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was lethal around the penalty area and so could justify his comparatively low work-rate, Berbatov is the antithesis of the super-busy United striker who seeslosing the ball as a dishonourable act which he has a moral duty to correct. Berbatov must know that most Old Trafford diehards are intolerant of his dreamy style.

In a long and compelling answer to a question about Van Nistelrooy's successor Sir Bobby Charlton, the embodiment of United's energetic forward play, said in the Observer last year: "I watched him at Tottenham [his previous Premier League club] and I thought he was in charge of his own destiny, that he made the right decisions. But playing for Man United is a bit more demanding. You're expected not just to do all the great things you're good at but also your share of the dirty work – which is chasing back to regain possession, helping your defenders if you're close enough to help.

"First of all I was very critical of him, to myself, thinking: 'Look at that. As soon as he loses the ball he stops running and starts walking, as if to say – somebody else will do it'. And I thought: 'He must be a good player if he can afford to do that.'"

Charlton said he had come to understand Berbatov's "really great skill, his awareness and his physical strength at holding people off. Not only that, when he passes he always makes it easy for you. He always gives it perfectly. Everything is so, so precise. Add to that, he's got his control and when he gets round the goal he wants to score.

"He's frustrating sometimes. Instinctively I think that, 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. Cantona had that arrogance. But he did his fair share of the work. I'd never complain about Cantona in that respect. He was sensational and he had an influence. Given that bit of time and space that Berbatov seems to be finding now, he'll get better and better."

Since Charlton offered that analysis, mid-way through the striker's first season in Manchester, stagnation has become the theme. Twelve goals from 27 league appearances this term is not a glittering statistic. Rooney had scored 18 times in 13 outings before a typically conscientious urge to stop an attacking run inside his own half led to his ankle injury. Berbatov has yet to score in this season's Champions League but did seize two in the weekend's 4-0 win at Bolton.

Of the alternatives Michael Owen is out with hamstring damage, Mame Biram Diouf has appeared only five times for United and Federico Macheda is an 18-year-old on the road back from injury (Danny Welbeck is out injured).

"I'd have enjoyed playing with him but I'd have been arguing with him. A lot," Charlton said. "If you've got people running backward and forward and you're responsible, it's not right. But he's learned. You're not allowed many mistakes and you can't be casual. You can't be casual."

As a child Berbatov modelled himself first on Marco van Basten, then on Shearer. From the outset on Saturday and again on Wednesday night the United cognoscenti will look for evidence that his self-esteem has not been damaged by his slide in the hierarchy and hope he learned from Shearer the meaning of 'carpe diem'.

Source: Guardian


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