Saturday, November 3, 2012
Berbatov finds a home at the Cottage
John Brewin, Craven Cottage
Indolent, a fair weather player, an artist in an artisan's game, too much of an individual and only out for himself. Such accusations have been levelled at Dimitar Berbatov. This is not the type of man expected to run through a brick wall for the cause even though playing on with a cracked rib may redress some of those opinions.
Berbatov, when all is considered, was not a Manchester United player in the modern sense; artistry must accompany achievement in the Ferguson era. He already looks a player destined for the Fulham hall of fame, no matter how brief his stay may be at Craven Cottage, a place where George Best once washed up after final excommunication from Old Trafford.
Berbatov never quite hit the heights at United for different reasons but Ferguson's standards are, of course, sky high. Berbatov's goal record was decent, but his contribution to overall play was never quite enough for a United team to be built around him, though a keen bunch of loyalists still feel it should have been.
The lunchtime win for United against Arsenal was not the type of game that Berbatov was ever allowed to play in at his former club. Craven Cottage's sleepy surroundings, where he is relied upon far more, would seem to suit him better. He now reminds of Teddy Sheringham, a player never fully appreciated by United fans, but one who delighted at his various London homes. At the Cottage, flitting in and out and sprinkling liberal swathes of magic is more than acceptable.
For a club who have a statue to pass-master Johnny Haynes, a player like Berbatov is cherished. An early Zidane-esque 'roulette' brought both applause and a foul when he was hacked down. From there, Bryan Ruiz bent in the free-kick that Tim Howard, a fine goalkeeper, capable throughout his career of mistakes, slapped into his own net.
Then, the killing of a ball that most would have dealt with as a ball into space, a check and a pass through to Damien Duff brought gasps of pleasure. A cheeky backheel only drew a throw-in, but there was much giggling at his front. There would have been groans from prawn sandwich eaters at Old Trafford for that. At Craven Cottage he was even applauded for a half-hearted effort to chase down Phil Neville. "He's a bit of tart," said one fan as Berbatov crumpled under a Phil Jagielka challenge. "But he'll do for me."
Playing as a furthest-forward counterpoint to a Fulham team who both were pegged and pegged themselves back once Ruiz had scored, Berbatov sat marginally in front of the Costa Rican, the rest of their team-mates detailed with controlling an effervescent Everton. Duff played almost as a man-marker on Leighton Baines, dovetailing with Steven Pienaar down the Everton left. Fulham were pinned back throughout, with crosses being pounded into their area. The veteran pairing of Brede Hangelaand and Aaron Hughes punished their neck muscles in heading away ball after ball.
A shot by Jagielka that blazed wide through a crowd, and Nikica Jelavic failing to capitalise on a mix-up between Diarra and Hughes meant that Fulham survived to the break. By the end of the first half, the Berbatov out-ball was being used less and less.
As Steven Gerrard has had to admit, Everton are no long-ball team, but they are muscular, aggressive and energetic. David Moyes' team play a pressing game that is British in origin and tempo, with a South African in Pienaar, an Englishman in Baines and a Belgian in Fellaini key to its success. Fellaini might have grabbed the equaliser, but a compatriot in Kevin Mirallas played provider. Had Mirallas stayed on the field during the Merseyside derby last week, then Everton may have pressed home for victory. He certainly adds options for Moyes, whose recent transfer dealings have been exemplary.
Soon after Fellaini's first, Berbatov awoke from a period of inactivity to hold up the ball in the centre, his strength keeping Johnny Heitinga at bay with ease. Next, his supernatural awareness of space allowed him to create an angle to shoot at Howard from close range. Allowing the ball to drift beyond him where others would have sought instant control had bought him space to do so.
In the 72nd minute, Berbatov was to be found remonstrating at team-mates for a ball played for him that even he could not control. Within a flash, Fellaini had bullied his way through a tiring Fulham defence, and thrashed past Schwarzer. Everton had the lead their greater impetus deserved.
From there, Berbatov took up responsibility, now showing up in midfield from where he could prompt, probe and try to create. A move he started ended up with Hangeland heading over a Sascha Riether cross. Once Mladen Petric came on, Berbatov was then to be found clashing with Fellaini deep in his own half, though he could not stop the afroed one eventually powering in a shot. Only a clawing save from Schwarzer denied a hat-trick, and certain victory for the visitors.
Everton were thwarted in a fashion described by legendary Toffees striker Graeme Sharp as "unbelievable". In the 90th minute, Fulham scored, with Berbatov playing his part; he himself should have scored when Riether's skidding ball evaded that usually limpet-like touch.
Such moments are those recalled by the Berba-deniers in Manchester, but this time luck had not deserted him. Substitute Steve Sidwell was at his side, and poked home. Berbatov was first to offer congratulations, with relief no doubt leading his emotions and those of the home support.
"I can't believe we've only got a draw out of that," said an exasperated Moyes. "We could have won this one quite comfortably and we didn't."
A 2-2 home draw with Everton snatched completely against the balance of play would not have been acceptable in Berbatov's previous life but it was cheered to the Craven Cottage rafters.
Clapping his gloved hands as he left the field, Berbatov cut an isolated figure, as he has always done, but looked to be rather enjoying himself. Those at his new home are certainly enjoying having him around.
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