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Berbatov begins his road to redemption

September 20, 2010

Dimitar Berbatov soaks up the acclaim of his teammates during his inspiring performance in a 3-2 win over bitter rivals Liverpool yesterday. Photo: Tom Jenkins, The Guardian

Back in April, Dimitar Berbatov’s place as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s big-money flops seemed assured. With the league title on the line and United trailing at home to Chelsea, the Bulgarian was presented with a wonderful opportunity to equalise with virtually the last kick of the game. But instead of lashing home on the volley from twelve yards out, Berbatov could only shootly weakly into the arms of Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal, completing a miserable day for the beleagured striker and almost guaranteeing Carlo Ancelotti’s first title with the Blues.

Since United broke the bank to prise him away from Tottenham and prevent him joining their “noisy neighbours”, Manchester City, in September 2008, Berbatov has flickered only briefly. A meagre twelve goals in 43 appearances last term suggested a player capable of breathtaking skills when the mood took him but one who tended to drift out of games when the going got tough. In his first season he had undoubtedly played a part in the Red Devils appearing in a second successive Champions League final and claiming the Premier League title, but his role was a peripheral one at best. All seemed set for a quiet exit over the summer.

Sir Alex Ferguson, however, had other ideas and his persistence with the erratic striker is now paying rich dividends. Going into yesterday’s contest with Liverpool at Old Trafford, the 29-year-old striker had four goals to his name in five matches, and had wowed the crowds at home and away with his mercurial skills and deadly finishing. It looked like United’s mammoth investment could finally be about to bear fruit.

Then came yesterday’s masterpiece. Two headed goals and one improvised moment of magic gave Berbatov his first United hat-trick in a thrilling win over the old enemy. Ferguson’s delight was obvious, and his high-five with the striker as he left the field in the dying seconds was loaded with significance. Not only had his ¬£30m man scored the goals he believed he was capable of, he had done it against the club’s most hated rivals.

“Lots of questions were asked about him last season and he was made something of a whipping boy,” Ferguson wrote in yesterday’s programme notes. “People should have queried whether the man had real ability, and the answer for me was undoubtedly ‘yes’. Next they should have looked to see if he was a Manchester United kind of player, and again I think there was no doubt about him.”

Ever since Eric Cantona swaggered off the stage thirteen years ago, United and Ferguson have been searching for a replacement. The muscular Frenchman, blessed with sumptuous skills and an uncanny ability to score vital goals in the most important matches, inspired his teammates and the crowd with his individual brilliance for five glorious seasons. Ever since, the faithful have been waiting for a second coming.

Immediately after Cantona’s shock departure, the intelligence of Teddy Sheringham briefly touched the heights, but his was always a game more suited to bringing others into play than stealing the limelight for himself. More recently, Cristiano Ronaldo became the exhilirating focal point of the team but his arrogance and lack of club loyalty meant he never truly connected with the United crowd.

It is perhaps in the indefatigable creativity of Wayne Rooney that United have come closest to a worthy successor to Cantona. But for all the England striker’s ability, he rarely does the truly unexpected in the way the Frenchman could. Berbatov, however, can and against Liverpool his touch was sure, his running elegant. As ever, he rarely seemed to break a sweat and there were not that many moments of improvisation. The one that did come, though, was well worth the wait.

After controlling a floated Nani cross with his back to goal on his right knee, Berbatov instantly shifted his body weight to execute a perfect overhead kick that cannoned down off the crossbar and into the net. Pepe Reina in goal for Liverpool remained absolutely stationary. Berbatov’s marker, Jamie Carragher, simply stared in disbelief. It was a moment for Old Trafford to savour.

The season is only just beginning, but Berbatov has shown more than enough to suggest he could be the creative catalyst for United this season. The reasons why the Bulgarian suddenly looks the player Ferguson has always believed he could be are many. His international retirement has meant more rest between matches, while the arrival of Javier Hern√°ndez has provided much needed competition. Too often last season a lack of striking resources meant that Berbatov was playing poorly but keeping his place. Now that is not an option. The lacklustre form of Rooney could also be playing a part. Such was the Liverpudlian’s influence last year, Berbatov was continually in his shadow. Now, however, after a disastrous World Cup and sordid revelations about his private life, Rooney is struggling and the Bulgarian is stepping in to fill the void.

Dimitar Berbatov is simply too calm to be the next Cantona; incandescence is not his style. What he does have, though, is the creative gifts to lift his team allied to a new sense of purpose and responsbility which he seems to be revelling in. And whatever has propelled Berbatov to this rich form, he isn’t getting carried away. “I’m going home with a smile on my face,” he said, “but to my kids I’m nothing special. And tomorrow is another day.”

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