Tag Dimitar Berbatov

Tag Dimitar Berbatov

Berbatov still Reds’ square peg

March 22, 2011 Tags: Reads 36 comments

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.

Hernández wins plaudits and trust

March 16, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 52 comments

Javier Hernández’ emergence from unknown, to Sir Alex Ferguson’s leading striker could take a limited Manchester United side to ever great heights and – perhaps crucially – bring out the best in Wayne Rooney too. The Mexican’s transformation from impact substitute to first choice in recent games says much for the 22-year-old’s rapid development. It’s progress that could win United the Premier League title and take the Reds to the Champions League latter stages.

Hernández’ brace against Marseille on Tuesday night won United a game that could easily have slipped away. Indeed, had the former Chivas striker been on the French side’s books, the Reds could well now be out of the Champions League. Crucial misses from André-Pierre Gignac and Loïc Rémy spared Ferguson’s blushes on a night when injuries and inconsistency almost proved calamitous.

Hernández’ well taken double proved the difference though. The Mexican’s first after five minutes calmed United’s nerves; the second with a quarter-hour remaining effectively won Ferguson’s side a match in which the hosts were never in complete control. Neither goals taxed the forward’s skill-set perhaps – both close-range strikes – but Hernández’ movement proved crucial, offering a static United midfield consistent options.

The performance drew praise from Ferguson, who resisted the temptation to recall this season’s top-scorer Dimitar Berabtov. Indeed, the Scot expressed delight at the Mexican’s rapid development in the nine months since his arrival in England, and confidence in the growing partnership with Rooney.

“We are surprised,” said Ferguson.

“When we bought him we thought it’d take him time to adjust. He has adjusted to the physical part very well and is lasting 90 minutes.”

“It [partnership with Rooney] has been developing well. Where Wayne has been playing in the past couple of games he is a real threat. He has such power and speed and Hernández is unbelievable with his movement. The boy has goals in him.”

The Mexican’s goals – 15 in all competition, to Berbatov’s 20 – have also relieved the burden on Rooney. If United relied too heavily on the Scouser last season, then the former Evertonian’s troubles in recent months have also demonstrated the wealth of Ferguson’s options in attack. Hernández has taken his chance in spectacular style.

Moreover, the Mexican’s emergence has freed Rooney to take up a deeper position in which the 25-year-old can affect the game in a more creative way. After all, with Paul Scholes’ ageing legs no longer able to carry the 36-year-old through games, United has lacked a certain ‘stardust’ in midfield, to paraphrase beaten coach Didier Deschamps.

While 34 goals in all competitions last season was an immense return for United’s £27 million striker, the change in position arguable hamstrung Rooney’s creative side. No longer so, with Rooney dropping deep and Hernández providing the focul point to United’s attack Ferguson can play a traditional 4-4-2, knowing the Scouser can drop into midfield when required. The change also enables United to take advantage of the Mexican’s blistering pace.

Rooney can also see the benefits of the growing partnership, which has helped United’s star player return to some semblance of form in recent weeks.

“He’s a fantastic player,” Rooney told BBC Radio 5 live after Tuesday’s victory.

“He’s in good form, it’s nice to see him scoring and nice to play with him. He always tries to stay on the shoulder, looks in behind and he’s a quick player. By making those runs in behind defenders it creates a bit more space for you in front of them.

“So it’s working well at the minute. He’s been fantastic and works so hard as well. He wants to improve and it’s good to see.”

Hernández’ gain is Berbatov’s loss of course. The Bulgarian’s patchy form – streaks of goalscoring, followed by long barren periods – has hardly helped the former Tottenham Hotspur striker. Neither has Ferguson’s consistent tinkering with his role though. Now 30, Berbatov joined United having lead the line at each of his former clubs only to be deployed in a deeper role at Old Trafford. Then, finally consistently chosen as a ‘number nine’ this season, the Bulgarian has struggled to maintain a regular place in United’s side.

It places the Bulgarian in an interesting position, with his four-year contract due to run out in June 2012. Other United players in a similar position – Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic – have each signed new deals with the club. While speculation was widespread in February that an announcement could be imminent, there is no ink on a new deal.

That is no concern to Hernández of course, for whom United paid just £8 million up front with staggered performance payments to come. Whatever the final total, Hernández has proven a bargain and is likely to be rewarded with a bumper new contract well ahead of schedule. Few could deny the Mexican the reward for his significant impact at United.

In the meantime Hernández’ goals, if they continue to flow, could take a less-than-stellar United side to both the Premier League title and further in Europe than some predicted.

Poll: Has Berbatov earned new deal?

February 16, 2011 Tags: , Polls 43 comments

Reports indicate that Dimitar Berbatov is in talks to extend his Manchester United contract, with the Bulgarian striker’s deal due to expire in June 2012. The 30-year-old, who earns around £100,000 a week, is set for a 75 per cent pay increase following a season in which the former Tottenham Hotspur player has scored 20 goals in 29 games.

Indeed, United could break an unwritten club rule by offering the player a new three-year deal and not a rolling one-year contract often given to players over 30. Now in his third season with United, Berbatov could leave the club for free next June unless a new deal is signed.

The question is – has Berbatov done enough this season to justify the huge pay rise and long-term deal?

Has Berbatov earned (potential) new deal?

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The striking penny drops

November 30, 2010 Tags: , , Reads 7 comments

Two misleading assumptions in football surround Manchester United’s strike pairing Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney; assumptions that have grown despite evidence to the contrary. Yet, something happened at the weekend that hadn’t before – the pair took to the Old Trafford field ostensibly in their ‘correct’ positions.

The widely held – arguably false – view that Berbatov’s role is principally ‘in the hole’ was reinforced last season by Rooney’s transformation to a central striker. There is no little irony in neither striker playing these roles at international level.

Those familiar with this site’s regular podcast, Rant Cast, will recognise this oft-used refrain.

Indeed, Berbatov had led Bulgaria’s attack – until retirement this past summer – and scored 48 goals in 77 internationals as a central striker. The Bulgarian was largely deployed as a conventional striker, albeit one with an outstanding first touch and unsurpassed awareness of space in the box, in two successful seasons at Tottenham Hotspur, with Robbie Keane given license to roam, and before that at Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.

Not until the 29-year-old’s arrival at Old Trafford did Berbatov more consistently operate in a deeper position, one that Sir Alex Ferguson admitted was the wrong one in the summer of 2009 after a frustrating opening season for the club.

“We were a bit unfair to him last season because we asked him to play too deep,” admitted Ferguson in August 2009.

“We thought that suited him but we were wrong. We realise now he is at his best in the final third of the pitch, where he’s a real threat. We know how to use him this season and he won’t change from that.”

It proved a false dawn for the six-times Bulgarian Player of the Year. Throughout the last season’s campaign, with Rooney often preferred as a lone striker in a 451 formation, Ferguson failed to correct the problem he had already identified, deploying Berbatov sporadically, or in roles not suited to the Bulgarian – deeper when paired with Rooney, or as a lone-forward when not.

Meanwhile, Rooney made his name and continues to thrive for England in a far deeper role than he has ever played for United. The former Evertonian’s flexibility, vision and excellent technique have always lent themselves to the role he now occupies for Fabio Capello, around 15 yards deeper than a ‘number nine’ – Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch, or Jermain Defoe.

Recalling the precocious forward’s debut, aged 17, against Australia followed by a stunning display against Turkey in a Euro2004 qualifier, it was clear from a very young age that Rooney operated with a mature view of the pitch and play around him. It is tempting to suggest that only in England would Rooney’s skills have been harnessed as a lone-striker.

Yet, it is to Rooney’s credit and range of skills that he so seamlessly migrated into the ‘number nine’ role that brought a tally of 34 goals in all competitions last season. But for a serious ankle injury against Bayern Munich, Rooney may even have reached the 40 goal tally achieved previously by Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo in the modern era.

On Saturday, Rooney produced his best performance in a United shirt for eight months, noticeably dropping deeper than Berbatov, producing a series of stunning cross-field passes and linking smoothly with his partner. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian plundered his biggest goal haul in a single game during his time in England.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Source: ESPN

Source: ESPN

Tactics are not as simple as heat maps and chalkboards of course and Berbatov’s tendency to roam is still evident (above) and he is unlikely to become a van Nistelrooy-esque goalhanger any time soon. But intuitively, Rooney’s role on Saturday was very specifically deeper than his colleague’s – it paid handsome dividends for both men.

Ferguson’s reluctance to countenance deploying Rooney ‘in the hole’ behind Berbatov as United’s ‘number nine’ is understandable though. Berbatov has not proven himself a reliable finisher – Rooney has – while the Bulgarian’s relative lack of pace is often not thought conducive to playing on the should of the last defender.

Berbatov’s creative eye is also misleading. While the Bulgarian often tops the charts for creating the most goal-scoring chances, it is in and around the box that his technique really counts, not when dropping back towards the half-way line.

On the other hand Rooney, as England discovered during an excellent World Cup qualifying programme – if not tournament itself – thrives in the deeper role.

The question now is whether Blackburn represents a one-off or a permanent change in tack from United’s management.

Can Berbatov find a new consistency?

November 29, 2010 Tags: Reads 13 comments

Shortly before Dimitar Berbatov scored five against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday a leading media outlet declared that Sir Alex Ferguson had given the Bulgarian striker six months to save his Manchester United career. It’s a claim open to ridicule when a player has scored five but perhaps not that far off the truth either.

After all, Berbatov has rarely found the consistency required of a United player in two and half years at Old Trafford. The burst on Saturday came after a run of 10 matches without a goal and some frustratingly brittle performances to boot.

Failure of consistency is an accusation that is levelled against both Berbatov’s output and his performances for the club. So brilliant he is often worth the Glazers’ inflated ticket prices one week. So frustratingly wasteful that neither manager nor fans can trust him the next.

In statistics supporters often find salvation. In 103 appearances for the club, the Bulgarian’s bare output is no embarrassment; 38 goals and 18 assists point to both a creator and finisher. Much as Ferguson had predicted when signing the player for more than £30 million in August 2008.

Indeed, as Berbatov scored seven goals in the opening six fixtures this season many observers ate their most critical words. Berbatov finally married consistent goalscoring to his undoubted artistry. Ten games, no goals and an overwhelming sense of frustration later and Berbatov’s opening six weeks seemed an exception to prove a rule.

The 29-year-old striker’s tendency to disappear from games when he is not in prime form came to fore once again in the past two months, just as it had last season. Just 12 goals last term led to Ferguson regularly leaving out his record signing. The Scot did the same last weekend, ignominiously leaving Berbatov out of his matchday 18 against Wigan Athletic.

It leaves supporters wondering whether Berbatov can ever find the consistency expected of a £30 million player. Indeed, Berbatov expressed relief after the performance against Blackburn, with five goals signaling the end of a ‘worrying’ period for the Bulgarian star.

“In the end I’m pleased with the performance and the goals I scored, personally I was very impressed with myself,” said Berbatov.

“I’ve scored five before but it was a long time ago back home. To do it in the Premier League when only four other players have done it, to stand next to Shearer and Andy Cole is a great honour.”

“I was a little bit worried. When you are a striker people tend to only look at the goals you score.”

But if goals are the currency, then Berbatov comes up short at the highest level. In matches against other members of the traditional ‘big four’ the Bulgarian has scored just five in 14 games for United. Three of those came against Liverpool this season. The  record is little better against other contenders. He has two in seven matches against former club Tottenham Hotspur and none in five games against Manchester City.

In the Champions League the striker has just four in 18 games, these coming against the lesser lights of Aalboug and Celtic. For a creative player, Berbatov is credited with just one assist in those 18 fixtures.

None of which, of course, makes for comfortable reading for the striker, who on that evidence is little more than a flat-track bully, despite topping this season’s Premier League scoring charts with 11.

Sam Allardyce, whose team suffered at Berbatov’s feet on Saturday, moved to defend the 29-year-old striker against his many critics.

“Dimitar has a laid-back style,” Allardyce said.

“You have to understand the intelligence of Berbatov, how he finds spaces in tight areas, how rarely his touch deserts him, how he looks slow but is actually far quicker.

“It takes time to settle in and play for Manchester United. Just because you cost £30 million it doesn’t mean you are going to be an instant success, you still have to get used to playing for Manchester United and the pressure of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.”

That Allardyce should feel the need to speak out on Berbatov’s behalf speaks loudly. Indeed, eight of the striker’s goals this season have come in two games, which is a pointer to the overwhelming frustration with a player whose outstanding ability should bring so much more consistency.

There should be no debate; technically, Berbatov has few limits. His talent deserves all the personal and team accolades possible.

Mentally though, questions remain. Will the Bulgarian follow Saturday’s quintet with goals in the coming weeks, including matches against Chelsea and Arsenal in December? History suggests it unlikely and with Rooney now fit, there’s no guarantee Ferguson will even select the Bulgarian for United’s biggest games.

That is Berbatov’s legacy and it is so much less than it could be. There is time though, with the player contracted to United until June 2012 and talks over a new contract still possible before next summer.

Berbatov’s talent could yet bring a 25 goal season though. Supporters, team and most of all Berbatov himself deserve that level of consistency.

Dimi’s form creates tactical headache

September 20, 2010 Tags: Reads 23 comments

While Dimitar Berbatov’s talent has never been in doubt – at least for those supporters of the more patient bent – the player’s role in the Manchester United squad has been routinely questioned. At times Berbatov has seemed the right player, in the wrong club. No longer, with seven goals already this season.

Indeed, the Bulgarian’s outstanding form may cause Sir Alex Ferguson to reconsider his strategy this season when United faces the toughest of challenges, especially in Europe. It’s a question that Ferguson must answer next week, when United travel to Valencia for the first away Champions League fixture of the season.

While Ferguson has vigorously defended the player – he could hardly do otherwise – the manager selected Berbatov to start just once in 10 Champions League matches last season. The player made it off the bench on just five occasions as Wayne Rooney plundered 34 goals in all competitions.

Moreover, for the first time in Berbatov’s career, he started less than 30 matches in all competitions last season. Form and, perhaps more importantly, Ferguson’s tactical approach in deploying Rooney as a lone striker, and not injury, was the cause of Berbatov’s under-use.

While Berbatov’s output in his two seasons at United to date can be brought into question, United’s weaknesses have also prompted Ferguson to deploy three central midfielders in many games. This is especially true away from home, in Europe or against what the Scot considers the toughest opposition.

The United manger’s change of heart this season has resulted in United deploying two strikers in all but one fixture – away to Everton at Goodison Park just over a week ago when Rooney was dropped during the ongoing ‘hooker-gate’ media coverage.

However, in all probability Ferguson’s about-face will change once again when United faces more challenging tasks in the season ahead – starting with Valencia next Wednesday.

What then of Berbatov’s role alongside Wayne Rooney spearheading United’s attack? Hardly known as an impact substitute, Berbatov has thrived this season in starting each of United’s five Premier League fixtures.

When United travel to Valencia something has to give: Ferguson’s typical three-man midfield for a European fixture, Rooney’s place in the team, or indeed, Berbatov’s. It is almost inconceivable that Ferguson will drop the Scouser.

The question remains then: will Ferguson be ready to leave out his leading scorer, risk deploying Paul Scholes in a two-man central midfield away from home, or fudge the issue by pushing Rooney into an unfavourable left-sided role?

With Antonio Valencia injured until at least February, the temptation to push Rooney wide in a 4-3-3 system must be strong, even though it will inevitably blunt the former Evertonian’s goal output. After all, Rooney may have just one club goal since he injured an ankle against Bayern Munich in March but the devastating output of United’s number 10 is only a scoring burst away.

Away from home the system so often had the effect of nullifying Rooney’s better qualities when it was used liberally through the 2008/9 season. The sight of United’s talisman covering Patrice Evra at left back is one central defenders of the world must enjoy the most.

The alternative is to invite Valencia – or any future opposition of strength – to outnumber United’s midfield in 10 days time; it’s a risk that Ferguson has so rarely taken over the past 18 months.

Of course that analysis says much of United’s strength-of-depth in central midfield. While there is no doubting Scholes’ genius, his ability to play Saturday-Wednesday is limited and the relevant stats show that not only does the flame-haired midfielder run less distance than before but his average position is now squarely within the centre circle.

United, effectively, plays with neither a traditional holding player nor creative force in the final third. It’s a problem Ferguson has recognised but through choice or necessity has managed by deploying an addition body in midfield more often than not. It’s a system the manager will almost certainly revert to again this season.

With Berbatov is such wonderful form, the manager will now be forced to decide what – or whom – to sacrifice for the cause.

Dimitar Berbatov: a new hope

September 1, 2010 Tags: Reads 48 comments

It is a name that evokes strong emotions and opinions amongst Manchester United fans. For some, the Bulgarian is the purest form of football – art, touch, grace, and a dash of improvisational flair combine to make a player of unrivalled skill. For others, he is a source of constant frustration; the talent outweighed by the lack of product.

After all, the football world values function over form.

Approximately four years ago, this column – on this very website – pressed a ‘Case for the Attack’. It was noted that 4–4–2 was dead, or certainly coming to the end of its days at United. That United must look to the future. That future was 4–3–3.

Over the next three years those advocating the change felt vindicated as United’s brand of attacking, flowing football with the three pronged attack of Judas Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney struck fear into the defences they plundered.

Last season, that changed. Dimitar Berbatov was placed up top with Rooney, and while the former Evertonian excelled in a central role, his strike partner continued to frustrate and confound fans. The season, while successful, petered out without a major trophy.

And that brings us to the first criticism of Dimitar Berbatov.

Previously United’s forward line had movement, flair, pace and an ability to move the ball from defence to attack in seconds. Arguably, with Berbatov in the team, that ability has been severely limited. Too many times the ball goes into Berbatov and comes back towards midfield.

Whether lacking in confidence, or unwilling to turn and attack, Berbatov forces United’s attacks to slow and become more ponderous. Possession football might dominate games, but goals change games.

Important goals change games. Against big clubs and in tight games, a goal at a crucial point in the match can flip a game on its head. Too often Berbatov is responsible for the third of three goals, and very rarely the winning goal.

“But he’s in the mix, in the team, and sets the play” fans counter. Perhaps, but others expect a more concrete return for £30.75 million –  a match winner no less.

Berbatov’s statistics show four match winning goals in 2008 / 9. A cursory glance of 2009 / 10 found even less.

So after all the doom and gloom – what hope is there for him?

Secretly, many supporters are slowly being converted by Berbatov. His displays this season betray a new confidence. Crucially, there is more movement around him that the Bulgarian can find with his subtle touches and deft passes. Teams clearly fear the resurgent form of Paul Scholes and have defended deeper and wider, allowing Berbatov more space through the middle. His movement is excellent and he is always available for a pass.

Nani has retained his form from the end of last season. Berbatov and the Portuguese winger have combined well on a number of occasions this season – not least against West Ham United, who between them the pair tore to ribbons. Berbatov’s flicks and tricks seem at last to be finding as much function as form.

The striker’s volleyed third goal, from Nani’s chipped cross, prompted United’s players to flood around the striker. He clearly brings something to the team that his colleagues value highly. Sir Alex Ferguson continues to support the player despite the media criticism, so it is clear the Scot sees something in him as well.

Perhaps a new hero is slowly and steadily rising at Old Trafford.

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Berbatov shines in opening victory

July 17, 2010 Tags: , , Matches 1 comment

Dimitar Berbatov grabbed a goal and set up another as Manchester United opened the summer tour with a 3-1 victory over Celtic in Toronto. With doubts surrounding the Bulgarian’s future after a disappointing 2009/10 campaign, Berbatov struck the right notes as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team eased to a win in the first of seven pre-season matches.

Substitutes Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley also scored for United, with Georgios Samaras converting a penalty for Celtic as Ferguson’s team saw its first action on the summer after 11 days intensive fitness training.

United began with a strong line-up including Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes, although the Dutch ‘keeper aside the Reds’ back four averaged just 20.5 years-of-age with. Smalling made his début alongside Jonny Evans, and the da Silva brothers.

Indeed, the Brazilians on United’s right and left flanks offered plenty of width and dynamism in the opening half before wholesale substitutions broke up the flow of the Reds’ play.

Berbatov’s contributing was telling, expertly controlling Mame Biram Diouf’s cross with his right, before firing into the net with his left. It was typical Berbatov brilliance for the goal, which followed shortly after the Bulgarian fired wide from the edge of the 18 yard area. Such is the frustration with Untied’s £30.5 million signing.

Débutant Smalling’s contribution was less noteworthy, beaten for pace by Joe Ledly before dragging the Welshman down for a penalty. The former Fulham central defender will be thankful that red cards are rarely handed out for professional fouls in pre-season friendlies.

The steep learning curve of a United career begins here for Smalling, whose physique, pace and neat touch mark him out as a signing of potential high-class as long as the mistakes don’t continue.

Berbatov ended the match on a high, first swivelling to set up Welbeck from the right, before the Bulgarian’s back-heel opened up a shooting opportunity for Cleverley. Followers of the midfielder’s time at Watford will know Cleverley rarely needs a second invitation to shoot, this time benefiting from a heavy deflection for the goal.

Ferguson declared himself pleased with the workout, in front of plenty of empty seats but an enthusiastic Canadian crowd.

“We try and get the preparation to a point where they want to want to start playing games. There was a little bit of boredom in the training yesterday (Thursday). They had seven days at Carrington, four days in Chicago and they were desperate for a game,” said the Scot who now takes his team to Philadelphia for a match with the Union on Wednesday.

“The first game is one you want to get out of the road because fitness comes into it, as does the time you give to your players. I thought we were nearly right. I was pleased some of the performances were good.

“There was a period after Celtic scored they got a bit of dominance over us. That was a period we had to get through. The second goal killed the game. It was a fantastic goal too. A marvellous bit of football from Berbatov. The criticisms of him, it doesn’t come from our camp.

“Celtic were very competitive. That’s been the way when we have played them. There is not a lot in it between the two teams because the Scotland-England thing motivates both sets of players. It was never going to be an easy match,” added the United manager.

Ferguson reserved special praise for the Bulgarian striker though, who class is not in doubt but application and attitude most certainly are. With reports suggesting that United is prepared to offload the forward – offering him to European clubs this summer – Ferguson dismissed criticisms of the fragile striker, whose confidence was so obviously shot towards the end of the last campaign.

If he stays – and it remains an if for now – the Bulgarian could yet have a significant impact on the coming season.

United: Van der Sar; Rafael (De Laet 63), Smalling, J.Evans (Brown 45), Fabio (O’Shea 45; Obertan (Macheda 63), Fletcher, Scholes (Gibson 45), Giggs (Cleverley 45); Berbatov, Diouf (Welbeck 63).

Fergie strikes out on forward options

May 11, 2010 Tags: , Reads 14 comments

Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney have come to the inevitable conclusion that Manchester United needs a new striker this summer. Whether Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is inclined or has then financial means to do so is another matter. Indeed, the Scot’s acquisition of Javier Hernandéz brought to seven the number of forwards at the club

In the week that Ferguson defended Dimitar Berbatov and assured the Bulgarian he will remain at the club, veteran Giggs and 34-goal striker Rooney called on the Scot to enter the market.

The call comes from a widespread recognition that United is too heavily reliant on Rooney, who injured his ankle against Bayern Munich in Germany and compounded the problem with a – possibly related – groin strain. The Scouser missed games against Chelsea and Spurs, while hobbling partially fit through the rest of United’s unsuccessful run-in.

“We can’t rely on Wayne as much as we have done this season in terms of goals,” argues 800-game United legend Giggs.

“It was unfortunate for us that Wayne got injured at a really important part of the season because we’d relied on his goals more or less throughout it.

“So to get to the business part of the season and not have him, then to have him for one game without him having really trained, wasn’t ideal.”

Indeed, Rooney failed to score post injury, often appearing no more than 80 per cent fit with highly limited mobility. That Ferguson chose to deploy his half-fit talisman said much of the falling confidence in Berbatov, despite the Bulgarian’s appearances against Sunderland, Stoke and Tottenham Hotspur.

While Berbatov’s statistics this season are on the margins of adequate – 12 goals in 43 appearances – the striker’s £30.5 million transfer fee demands a standard of excellence he has not yet met in his time at the club.

The Bulgarian’s unique talent, lauded by Ferguson and many supporters, is not in doubt. But offered a chance to lead United towards Premier and Champions League glory following Rooney’s injury, Berbatov failed to hit the net.

It’s hardly a surprising statistic to anybody who has seen the broken confidence of a man seemingly scared to shoulder the responsibility. But the striker’s retention, in Ferguson’s lone forward system, will once again leave United vulnerable to a breakdown in Rooney’s fitness.

Yet it’s striking that the Scot now has so many forwards vying for a single place in the side. In addition to Rooney and Berbatov, Michael Owen, Hernandéz, Mame Biram Diouf, Federico Macheda and Welbeck each have their own designs on Old Trafford glory.

While Welbeck, whom Ferguson tipped for a place at the World Cup last summer, will once again head out on loan few of Ferguson’s other options appear suited to playing up front alone. Berbatov certainly isn’t, nor is Owen.

Diouf, meanwhile, is great in the air but rarely deployed as the attacking pivot in his time with the reserves. Hernandéz, who is small and quick but deceptively strong, is perhaps the closest to Rooney.

Despite this Rooney himself believes that the club needs established attacking options to mirror those in place during the 1999 season, when Teddy Sherringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer supported Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.

“If we can bring in two big-name players in it would give us a good chance of getting the league back if Chelsea do win it,” said the former Everton forward.

“If you look at the team in 1999 that won the treble, we had four forwards, all capable of scoring goals.

“Now there is me, Berbatov and Michael Owen. There is Federico Macheda, too, but if we can get one more top forward in it would give us the right balance.”

Rooney’s wish seems highly unlikely though, with Ferguson’s preferred choice Karem Benzema neither willing to leave Real Madrid nor affordable. The Frenchman, even if he’s available after a poor season in Spain, will cost more than £25 million.

Perhaps even more pertinent are the striker’s wages, at more than €10.5 million gross. Given current exchange rates and substantial tax differences, United’s board would need to offer Benzema more than £200,000 per week just to match the former Olympique Lyonnaise player’s wages. Rooney is on just £90,000.

Other potential options such as Wolfsburg’s Edin Dzeko will command a similar fee, if lower wages, although Ferguson has shown no tangible interest in the Bosnian. Meanwhile, Sevilla’s Luis Fabiano, at 29, is outside United’s stated transfer policy even though the Brazilian is desperate to join a Premier League team. And high-scoring Gonzalo Higuain is still wrapped up in Real Madrid’s bizarre internal politics.

It leaves United is no better position than now, reliant on the brilliant Rooney; hoping that Berbatov suddenly becomes more dynamic, Owen less injury prone, Macheda, Diouf and Hernandez mature beyond their years.

Berbatov’s supporters can bend the statistics and claim 12 goals in 24 Premier League games. Indeed, United scored more this season than last in the Premier League. But the club’s forwards also failed to hit the net on six occasions, dropping 17 points in the process.

They say madness is doing the same thing over and over – and hoping for a different result. But transfer madness is indeed what may face United this summer.

Transfer round-up 20/4

April 20, 2010 Tags: , , , Shorts 2 comments

Rant’s continuing ad-hoc round-up of the summer’s transfer news, gossip and reports from around the web. In today’s very special everybody’s leaving edition.. Manchester United misfit Zoran Tošić (remember him) plots life elsewhere, Dimitar Berbatov is a wanted man and Ben Foster aims to resurrect a dying career in the Midlands.

Tošić: I want to stay at Cologne
“I would like to stay at the club. The most important thing for any player is regular first-team football and I like Cologne, but I know any decision on my future will only be made in the summer,” said the 23-year-old Serbian winger. Tošić, who cost United £6 million almost 18 months ago is currently on-loan at the Bundeliga club after featuring in just five games for the club.

Dimitar Berbatov wanted in Milan
The Italian giants, who United knocked out of the Champions League this season, want Berbatov and will pay up to £20 million for the much criticised Bulgarian. Although Milan, desperately short of cash and seeking to offload star striker Pato, seem unlikely suitors a source told the Sun a bid is forthcoming.

“No contact has been made yet but we admire Berbatov,” said the unnamed ‘insider’, not believed to be Russell Crowe.

“He is a strong player who would do very well in Italy. Whether something can be arranged remains to be seen. It has been difficult for Berbatov in Manchester but he is a good player who has a lot to offer.”

On no he isn’t: agent
“The situation is clear, the future of Dimitar would still be at Manchester, he is happy there,” agent Emil Dantchev told Calciomercato.

“A difficult relationship with Ferguson? I cannot and don’t want to comment on these speculations from the press.

“I can only say that I have not scheduled any meeting with Ferguson, because there is no need.

“I have read the article on Milan, I can just say that it is a market rumour and it is not real.”

Ben Foster heads to Birmingham
United’s third-choice stopper Ben Foster, England’s number one at the start of the season and now on the metaphorical football scrapheap, will resurrect his career at Birmingham City. That’s if former Sir Alex Ferguson protegé Alex McCleish gets his way with a loan move in the summer.

Haris Vuckic to United?
No Rant doesn’t know who he is either but £5 million bid is on the cards for Newcastle United’s 17-year-old ‘wonderkid’ if the papers are to be believed.