When, with just seconds left on the clock, Dimitar Berbatov poked home Manchester United’s winner on Saturday it was hard not to recall events of nearly 20 years ago. Then, with six games to go in the Premier League title race, United came from behind to beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 at Old Trafford. Such was the confidence victory brought that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men concluded the campaign winning all the remaining games to take a first title since 1967.
While United’s victory over Bolton Wanderers was hardly as dramatic as the 1993 stoppage time win, where Steve Bruce scored two late headed goals, it could prove just as decisive. In a three-horse title race the loss of confidence from a third league game without a win could have been catastrophic. Momentum is, after all, everything.
Yet, it seems inconceivable that goalscorer Berbatov will end his United career revered with the same esteem as Bruce. The problem, it seems, has nothing to do with the Bulgarian’s talent. He is as ever the right man in the wrong place.
In raw numbers the campaign will almost certainly go down as the striker’s finest in a career that has spanned more than a decade at the top. Indeed, Berbatov’s 20 Premier League goals is now just one short of the total he scored five years ago at Bayer Leverkusen. Yet, Ferguson can find no room in his team for the 30-year-old, with the inexperienced Javier Hernández having supplanted the club’s top goalscorer in the Scot’s plans.
One viewpoint – that Hernández’ growth has simply demanded a place in the United team, whatever the Bulgarian’s early season form – is valid to a point. Berbatov’s goalscoring this season has come in bursts, with eight goals scored in two games against mid-table opposition.Yet, Ferguson’s decision is really no surprise either – the Scot has rarely trusted Berbatov in the so-called big games; those fixtures against the top four or the Champions League knockout stages.
Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s almost instant partnership with the Mexican has something to do with Berbatov’s fall from grace too. Hernández’ ability to play ‘on the shoulders’, spin and run behind defenders has allowed Rooney to drop deeper, simultaneous prompting a return to form and providing United with a creative spark from midfield. Conversely, Berbatov’s need to have the ball at his feet, whether facing goal or more often away from it, both slows United’s play and impacts on Rooney’s natural game. There is presumably no doubt who the Scouser would rather play with.
Ferguson has hardly aided his £60 million pair in the past three seasons, consistently – and with much frustration – changing both Berbatov and Rooney’s role in the team. After all, the Scouser has played both on the wing, then as the lone forward and more recently in a deeper role. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian has rarely been deployed in his natural position leading the line until, with some irony, this season.
It leaves United with a highly paid and very expensive 30-year-old depreciating asset that is not a fundamental part of the club’s strike-force. After nearly three seasons at the club Ferguson’s viewpoint is hardly going to change on this.
Moreover, Berbatov is out of contract in the summer of 2012, with a new contract as yet unsigned. While United has traditionally offered just a one-year extension to the over-30s, the Bulgarian is reportedly after both a hefty pay rise and a three-year deal. After his finest season at the club the former Tottenham Hotspur player should be entering negotiations in a remarkably strong position. It says much that he is not.
The result: Berbatov remains Old Trafford’s square peg. Supremely talented, a United star to his core, if only the stars were aligned. Or the Bulgarian was the player Ferguson hoped he would be.
Of course there is little value in allowing the Bulgarian’s contract to run down, with the smart money on an announcement before the season’s end. Yet, nothing in a new deal will ensure seven time Bulgarian Footballer of the Year becomes indispensable to both Ferguson and United should he last at the club beyond this summer. There remains the suspicion that Berbatov will forever be the greatest enigma in United’s modern history.
With eight games to go in the Premier League, a cup semi-final and a European quarter-final double-header with Chelsea there is still much to play for. Berbatov, a £30 million signing on deadline day 2008, should be driving Untied to ever greater glories. In truth it is inconceivable that the striker will be Ferguson’s first choice come the crunch ties in the coming two months.