Berbatov emerging as a new Cantona
Published 28/01/2011 | 05:00
The football jury was sceptical, indeed some of it was almost derisive, when Alex Ferguson almost beat down the doors of White Hart Lane in pursuit of Dimitar Berbatov.
Yes, everyone knew that Ferguson had been drawn to his big investment and, with his reputation for separating potentially great players from the merely good, he had United part with £30.75m based on abundant evidence of exceptional talent.
But could the master of Old Trafford please talk us through the 29-year-old Bulgarian's tendency to disappear from big matches and great swathes of whole seasons, for no better reason than he simply wasn't in the mood -- or had the need for a change of scenery become just too oppressive?
In his frenzy to sign Berbatov, and outbid the new rich boys on the block, Manchester City, on the last day of the transfer deadline, Ferguson had no time for such carping.
"Berbatov is an outstanding talent and I've admired him for quite some time," he said. "He is the kind of player I want to see at Old Trafford, full stop."
Ferguson kept the faith last season when Wayne Rooney for so much of the time brilliantly picked up the baton left behind by Cristiano Ronaldo when he departed for Real Madrid -- and Berbatov promptly slipped off the radar.
Maybe the manager did it because of the recurring evidence that when he experiences the football equivalent of the 'Sicilian thunderbolt' -- the moment of falling in love -- it mostly proves to be more than a one-night, or in this case, one-season stand.
Berbatov is blazing now with the steady light of major talent: 19 Premier League goals, five ahead of the relentless Carlos Tevez, 10 more than the recovering Didier Drogba, 16 more than the still rehabilitating Rooney.
Ferguson is too old a warrior to indulge in extended bouts of hubris; had he been so inclined, the convulsions of Rooney on and off the field earlier this season would have been an effective antidote.
However, there is something of a pattern here in the reincarnation of Berbatov as a player of palpable class and deadly scoring touch. Ferguson doesn't just reach a hard and unbreakable conclusion about certain players; he inhales it.
Not of all of his signings have trailed glory; goalkeepers, with the notable exceptions of Peter Schmeichel and the now retiring Edwin van der Sar, have been tricky. His first moves in an unfamiliar English market in the 1980s had a number of less than spectacular outcomes, but the big, team-moving initiatives have tended to be stunning.
Juan Sebastian Veron and Laurent Blanc were disappointments but he consoled himself with the reflection that they were investments in players who had in different ways announced their superior class before arriving, incompatibly, in the Premier League.
Now, though, Berbatov is threatening to elect himself among the great, empire-building signings: Keane, Cantona, Ronaldo and Rooney, players who in Ferguson's thinking had the capacity not just to to enhance but transform the team's prospects.
He saw Roy Keane make himself arguably the most significant force in Premier League history. He missed, but through no lack of effort, Alan Shearer, but came up with Cantona -- a player who really may not be worth his now apparently automatic place in an all-time United XI but was of immense significance as the inspiration and catalyst of the championship team of Giggs, Scholes, the Neville boys and Beckham.
Cantona was one of the ultimate mavericks, scorned in his native France and rejected by the national team, and considered more trouble than he was worth -- though that was considerable -- by Leeds United's first title-winning manager since Don Revie, Howard Wilkinson.
Ferguson saw how Cantona might thrive at Old Trafford. He saw the same level of potential in Rooney and Ronaldo when the rest of football held back. Ronaldo came at a knock-down £12m and walked into the shoes of David Beckham so beautifully, Golden Balls was consigned to United history for more quickly than could ever have been imagined.
Rooney, though scrabbling around for his old aura, has shown enough evidence that his basic ability is still in working order, and his impact is a matter of history now: journeys to two Champions League finals, one of them successful with Ronaldo, and a season that threatened to be staggering in its authority before he was struck by injury last March.
Now Berbatov applies impressively for membership of the Ferguson pantheon. He can still do languid more comprehensively than almost any other professional but the moments of startling intervention, and superlative skill, are coming with increasing frequency.
At Blackpool in midweek he received huge support from Ryan Giggs and Javier Hernandez, the young Mexican who came to Old Trafford on another flash of Ferguson intuition, but his two goals were the difference between a shuddering halt to a run of 28 undefeated games and a powerful discouragement to all of United's title challengers.
Berbatov was a pensive, almost disconnected figure at the deepest point of his trough last season. His skill, inevitably, erupted from time to time but only fleetingly. Devastatingly, he was excluded from United's Champions' League quarter-final games with Bayern Munich in March, partly a reflection of the fact that he had not scored in Europe since a double strike in September 2008, against the modest resistance of Aalborg.
"I still see a future for myself at Manchester United," he declared defiantly last spring, but not too many others did. Except, of course, Ferguson, who said, "Sometimes it takes a little while for a player of quality to settle down and feel entirely comfortable. No, I haven't given up on Dimitar Berbatov -- no way."
After his game-breaking performance at Blackpool, Berbatov could hardly have been more serene. He said: "Yes, I am playing well and confidently now but I want this to be a normal level of performance in my future with United."
For Ferguson, it was the uplifting suggestion that once again his highest ambitions had been imposed upon a player of outstanding ability -- not just to score goals of sublime quality, but also extend the boundaries of an extraordinary empire.