For cinephiles, Rick’s assertion to his erstwhile lover Isla that she must board the plane to Lisbon, for fear of regretting it should she not, still ranks as one of film’s great moments. Captured in three fleeting minutes is the pain of inevitable, and surely permanent, separation. Rick, although embittered by his past with Ilsa, and set free only by her, allows his great love to leave him for the last time. In the process Rick saves her life, and that of her husband, in the name of a more noble cause. They will, after all, always have Paris.
It is a romantic’s notion that some Manchester United supporters may have cause to knowingly recall this week. Old Trafford is no war-torn Casablanca, of course, but for United fans comes a dawning realisation, one years in the making, that Dimitar Berbatov’s future may lie elsewhere. It is for the love of Berbatov that supporters may also have to let him go.
Reportedly spotted boarding a plane to Germany this week, Berbatov’s end may well be nigh, with former club Bayer Leverkusen and billionaire-owned Russians Anzhi Makalakla reportedly keen on the 30-year-old Bulgarian, who is out of contract in the summer.
But separation, if it is to happen this winter, will come with a heavy heart. Not perhaps for Sir Alex Ferguson, who uses the striker sparingly, but certainly for those whose who love football’s more artistic tones.
Speculation about the former Tottenham Hotspur player’s future has rarely been out of the headlines in the past two years, with the forward now Ferguson’s fourth-choice in the role. Berbatov’s 21 goal haul last season came predominantly in the opening months of the campaign, only for the United manager to drop his £30 million star during the run-in.
Berbatov did not even make the squad for the Reds’ humiliating Champions League final loss to Barcelona, as Ferguson instead chose Michael Owen for a place on the bench. Being overlooked for a player who has performed with no distinction for United, or indeed anybody over the past decade, must have hurt Berbatov deeply.
Indeed, those willing to countenance Berbatov’s departure will point to two pieces of compelling evidence: that the striker’s contribution is now spasmodic at best, and that he is predominantly most active against United’s weaker opponents. Last season’s hat-trick against Liverpool aside, Berbatov rarely scores against United’s toughest opponents or in key matches. After all, Berbatov has scored just five goals in 25 Champions League appearances for United — four of them against Aalborg and Celtic.
Yet, Ferguson claimed only last week that the one-year, one-way, extension clause in Berbatov’s contract would be activated this spring, ensuring both that the player is tied to United until summer 2013, and perhaps more importantly for Old Trafford’s bean counters, that he will not leave on a free transfer in June.
Football is rarely a case of black and white though, and when it comes to transfer matters United is a club that is rarely willing to share the truth. Behind the assertion that Berbatov’s contract will be extended is the potential financial cost to the club. In an era of Glazernomics, where United’s owners are placing a genuine squeeze on Ferguson’s budget, extension will cost not only a fee in the £5-10 million region, but the Bulgarian’s hefty annual wages. It is a heavy price to pay for a player that is unlikely to start 30 games in all competitions this season.
Moreover, for all Berbatov’s enduring quality he has become an iniquity in Ferguson’s tactical system that, shorn of creativity in the centre of midfield, relies on pace in wide and forward areas. Berbatov simply slows down United’s play too much for Ferguson’s liking, and the Bulgarian has never genuinely struck up the kind of partnership with Wayne Rooney that Danny Welbeck appears to have found.
Yet, Berbatov is far more than a set of numbers, whether analysed on or off the pitch. The Bulgarian’s sublime touch and inspirational skill had a recent guest on this site’s podcast describing the Bulgarian as a player “made of velvet and wonder”. In that there is much to admire. Frustratingly unproductive at times, perhaps, but Berbatov is, was and surely always will be a supreme entertainer.
The club has been here before of course and at no point has Ferguson previously given the green light for Berbatov’s sale. This time may be different though for all the reasons already highlighted. Finances aside, Ferguson would surely retain Berbatov even in a bit-part role. But money is never far from the big picture at Old Trafford.
That, of course, is to say little of the player whose shining star deserves a leading part. It is with this thought that United fans may now have to accept the player’s departure. For the greater good? Maybe not. For the player’s well-being, certainly.
For many United supporters Berbatov is an enduring love, but one with whom separation now seems all too inevitable. And if Berbatov is to leave before the month’s ends, well, we’ll always have West Ham.