So is it farewell Berba the magician, enigma and eternal frustration?
Money talks, most of the time. When Dimitar Berbatov chose Manchester United ahead of cross-town rivals City three years ago the Bulgarian striker was one of few to reject Eastland’s billions in favour of the glory on offer at Old Trafford. Here, one of the finest talents to grace the English game, was heading north to strengthen the newly crowned champions’ already plentiful resources.
Indeed, the former Tottenham Hotspur striker would join not only Wayne Rooney, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in a potent quartet of attacking talent. It’s a signing that didn’t quite work as Sir Alex Ferguson expected.
Three years later and Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain is reportedly ready to pay €20 million to take the 30-year-old striker to France. It’s an offer that Ferguson is bound to take seriously, echoing the sale of Juan Sebastian Veron to Chelsea eight years ago. Once again a fabulous talent could leave Old Trafford, with potential unfulfilled
And yet there is no little irony in Berbatov’s potential departure, coming after the striker’s finest season in Manchester. In total the Bulgarian contributed 21 goals to United’s cause – 20 in the Premier League, which effectively won Ferguson’s men the title. But as the season drew to its conclusion Ferguson, as has become the norm in Berbatov’s three years with United, left his £30 million striker out of the side.
To illustrate the point, if needed, the forward failed to make the Champions League final squad at all, with the Bulgarian refusing to leave the confines of Wembley’s dressing room such was the pain. The finest season of Berbatov’s career, ruined by a dismal personal end to the campaign.
Despite this both Ferguson and United’s chief executive David Gill have been effusive in praise of the striker this summer, declaring Berbatov’s future safe with United. After all, while the player’s contract concludes in June 2012 the club has a ‘one-way’ option to extend for a further year, meaning United is in no rush to sell.
“There is an option to extend Dimitar’s contract by another year, on the club’s side,” said Gill.
“We can do it whenever we want to do it and there are no conditions around it. Everyone has been talking about Berbatov from the outside, saying he wants to leave or that we want want him to leave, but we don’t want him to go.
“We want him to stay. He scored over 20 goals last season, so there is no desire on our behalf to see him go. From our perspective he has, effectively, two years to go. We have until the end of the season, so we can assess how it goes, talk to him, see how he performs and see what happens.
“I’ve not had one conversation with Dimitar, there has been no correspondence in that respect. The decision Alex took was a decision he took for that particular game. It wasn’t a decision taken with a view that we want Dimitar to go, because we don’t.”
Dig a little deeper, however, and the player’s record holds up poorly to scrutiny; a wonderful talent that failed to deliver on the lavish promise. In this most cynical of industries supporters, indeed the club itself, is right to question whether value had been found.
The bare facts are this: Berbatov scored 21 goals in 42 games in all competitions last season. It’s a fine record at any level but a tally that included none in the Champions League, nor any against the top four, unless the Community Shield is generously awarded competitive fixture status. What’s more, of Berbatov’s 20 Premier League goals the Bulgarian scored against just five teams in the top half of the table – Newcastle, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton and Fulham.
Indeed, the player’s record in scoring predominantly against lower-ranked teams – seven came against relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool – is mirrored across his time at Old Trafford. Against other members of the current top four – Arsenal, City, Chelsea – Berbatov has just two goals in 20 games over his three years with United. Include Tottenham and Liverpool in that list, and the Bulgarian has seven in 34.
On the raw statistics alone United might countenance a sale, despite Gill’s denial this past weekend. With £17.5 million being offered for a player now in his thirties Glazernomics alone could force the issue, with United having spent heavily this summer. After all, money talks, most of the time.
Ferguson’s odd answer to a French journalist’s questioning last night only increases the intrigue. “Yes, he might [leave],” Ferguson told French television station Direct 8. “That’s possible.”
Moreover, with Javier Hernández entrenched as Ferguson’s first choice partner for Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck looking sharp in pre-season and Michael Owen seemingly promised more action in the coming year, Berbatov’s place in the Scot’s plans is far from clear.
Much as Veron once found talent alone is not always the key to Ferguson’s heart. And should the Berbatov move to Ligue 1 this summer it will end one of the most frustrating periods of any player in United’s recent history; a very special talent unfulfilled.