Friday, August 31, 2012
Berbatov failed to win over Fergie
He departed as he arrived: at the end of a transfer window, with confusion about his eventual destination and bitter rivals engaged in a squabble for his services. In 2008, it was Manchester City and Manchester United competing for Dimitar Berbatov. In 2012, it was Juventus and Fiorentina before the Bulgarian opted for Fulham instead. He had the talent to play for any. Temperamentally, however, the homely nature of Craven Cottage may suit him best.
Berbatov remains the most expensive player in United's history, a £30.75 million signing from Tottenham, but he leaves for a lesser fee than Sir Alex Ferguson recouped for Kieran Richardson. It is enough to make any member of the Glazer family wince and yet if Berbatov's destiny is to be bracketed alongside Juan Sebastian Veron (as Ferguson's costliest failures) the fault is not his alone.
If he will be remembered as the man for the small occasion, it is partly because Ferguson rarely selected him on the big stage. Consider the Champions League exits in Berbatov's four years at Old Trafford, four games where he featured for a total of 34 minutes.
In the 2009 final, he was the second substitute the Scot sent for with Carlos Tevez, in his final United game, the first man off the bench. In 2010, he made a belated cameo against Bayern Munich after Ferguson had deployed Nani alone in attack for 25 minutes. Greater indignity awaited in 2011: Berbatov watched another defeat to Barcelona in the bowels of Wembley after Michael Owen was chosen as the striking substitute; like Jim Leighton and Ruud van Nistelrooy before him, Berbatov discovered Ferguson can be at his most brutal on showpiece occasions.
By last season, he was an afterthought. It barely merited a mention that, injured, he sat out December's defeat to Basel. He actually scored seven goals in five league starts in his final campaign, but the latter is the significant statistic. If Berbatov was signed as the focal point, the attacking fulcrum who could dictate play with Cantona-esque froideur, he became marginalised.
This was despite sharing the Golden Boot with his antithesis Tevez in 2010-11, economy of movement and incessant running yielding 20 goals apiece. It was one of the less acknowledged achievements of recent times - though, bizarrely, it earned Berbatov a nomination to be Britain's Sports Personality of the Year from the Manchester Evening News - but it clearly counted for little with Ferguson.
The 70-year-old was unfailingly supportive of Berbatov in his public pronouncements (and, at times, aggressive towards the striker's critics) but his actions spoke louder than his words. The merest sight of top-six opponents or the hint of a knockout tie in the Champions League was often enough to end the Bulgarian's run in the team.
Instead, this most delicate of footballers became a flat-track bully, a specialist at overcoming lesser opponents at Old Trafford. Eleven of those 20 goals came in three matches, five of them alone against Blackburn. A hat-trick to defeat Liverpool, including a wonderful overhead kick, was a rare instance of Berbatov deciding a marquee match but, it was Roy Hodgson's Liverpool: his victims were still undistinguished.
Rewind to his Tottenham career, too, and Berbatov was at his best in more mundane surroundings. He struck four times against Reading, even if a habit of winning the winnable games was as useful at White Hart Lane as it promises to prove at Craven Cottage. The difference at Old Trafford is that they expect to beat the lesser lights anyway. United players tend to be judged on their performances when the pressure is on.
Higher-intensity games seemed to call for footballers who operate at a higher tempo, however. Like Veron before him, Berbatov discovered that Ferguson and the laidback seem a mismatch - while Paul Scholes can slow a game down, his tackling remains sufficiently fierce that it is a mistake to call him mellow - and that if the Scot's first great United side, as he once said, could out-play or out-fight anyone, the demands have changed little since the warriors of 1994 collected plaudits and punishments for magnificence and misbehaviour respectively.
In particular, the problem was that Berbatov rarely gelled with Wayne Rooney. His alliance with Robbie Keane was symbiotic, his pairing with Rooney rather more awkward. If both dropped off, it left no one to lead the line. Hence the rise of more athletic players such as Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, who stretched defences, before the recruitment of Robin van Persie. The Dutchman is charged with being the player Berbatov was supposed to be: the technician who is both artist and executioner.
Meanwhile Berbatov heads off; destination mid-table. The chances are that he will prove prolific for Fulham - he actually scored 49 league goals for United, despite only starting 82 games - and some will involve effortless moments of astonishing skill that make the Old Trafford faithful look back and wonder why it never worked out. But the truth may be that while he lasted four years in Manchester, Ferguson gave up on him long ago.