Berbatov returns to Old Trafford with point to prove
Published 26/01/2013 | 05:00
If there is one thing that staff at Manchester United learned about Dimitar Berbatov during his four years at the club, it is that he loathed being the centre of attention, which may cause him a problem when he returns to Old Trafford with Fulham tonight.
For example, after scoring a hat-trick in a 3-2 victory against Liverpool in September 2010, the enigmatic centre-forward attempted to sneak through the players' tunnel and into the car park to avoid speaking to MUTV, United's in-house television channel.
Think of words to describe Berbatov, and you might come up with reticent, taciturn and withdrawn at the top of the list followed, depending on your point of view, by majestic, lazy, breathtaking and moody.
Flop may be another one – the United fan-base is divided into the Berbagods and Berbaflops, with little in between – but Alex Ferguson insists that the Bulgarian does not deserve to be derided as an expensive mistake.
"I don't think Dimitar was a failure here," Ferguson said. "He did a great job. The problem is I had choices and, at his age, it's not easy to be part of those choices when he's not playing.
"Some people like to see players run through brick walls all the time. Dimitar is not that type of player, but he is a very talented boy who had a decent scoring record."
Regardless of Ferguson's warm tribute, Berbatov's return to Old Trafford in the FA Cup will see some United supporters lauding their misunderstood former hero with chants and applause, while the rest nip back into the concourse for a pie and a pint.
"Some fans still pine for Berbatov and are still in love with him," says Barney Chilton, editor of the 'Red News' fanzine.
"Some never had much time for him. I remain torn about him. You wanted him to do the things he clearly didn't – chase, be a nuisance – but he was never going to be that. We signed a square piece and wanted to put him in a round hole."
At some stage, all eyes will focus on Berbatov, unless he decides it may be better to slip under the radar and suggest to manager Martin Jol that he should be rested for Wednesday's league game against West Ham.
But Jol appears insistent he will play Fulham's talisman.
"I would love to see him score a hat-trick or something at Old Trafford," Jol said. "But it won't be easy, I know that. The problem for me with Dimitar is that I need him in midfield and I need him up front.
"When he plays up front, he doesn't always see a lot of the ball, but in midfield he is a great No 10. Yet every time he is in midfield, you lack a front player, so we've got to find the right balance."
The irony in Jol admitting to needing two Berbatovs is that Ferguson could never find the way to get the best out of one Berbatov following his club-record £30.75m transfer from Tottenham in September 2008.
His arrival signalled the end for Carlos Tevez, saw the dismantling of the three-pronged attack which delivered the Champions League title in 2008 and changed the way Ferguson's team played.
With Berbatov, the rapier-like counter-attacks were slowed by the languid striker and, quite simply, the experiment failed, prompting Ferguson to go back to pace and power at the expense of his most expensive signing.
"When we changed our game, it didn't suit him," Ferguson said. "We started to play with more speed because teams were getting organised very quickly against us.
"We had to change the way we wanted to play and it didn't suit Dimitar."
Berbatov did not fit in on the pitch at United and, at times, it was the same off the pitch.
There was one occasion, before a flight to Istanbul for a Champions League tie against Besiktas, when he ignored his team-mates in Stansted's VIP lounge and stood alone at the departure gate, suitcase in his hand, staring directly ahead, while the rest shared jokes in groups of five and six.
Berbatov was a loner within an inclusive squad. When he was dropped in favour of Michael Owen for the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona, Berbatov watched his side lose the game in the dressing-room on his own rather than take a seat with the other unused players in the stands.
The Owen snub was a humiliation for Berbatov, yet he kept his counsel, refused to criticise Ferguson or the club and soldiered on for another campaign, collecting £100,000 a week in wages as the Premier League's most expensive bench warmer.
With 57 goals in 149 appearances for United, Berbatov left Old Trafford sharing the same goals-per-game ratio (0.38) as the legendary George Best, but his critics would argue that the majority of his efforts came against much weaker opponents and point to his Champions League record, of just five goals in 26 games, as a better reflection of his contribution.
"People talk about Berbatov's time at the club as though he was a flop because he never lived up to his price tag," claims Scott Paterson, editor of United fan site therepublikofmancunia.com.
"But it's important to remember he was the league's top scorer in our 19th title season. It would not have happened without him.
"Brilliant player, top attitude, great to watch, but it never really clicked at United. The manager has to take some responsibility for that, but it's obvious he grew tired of Berbatov towards the end, with good reason too."
On leaving for Fulham last August, Berbatov finally vented his frustration with Ferguson, arguably revealing the passion which rarely surfaced at Old Trafford, by claiming: "I said goodbye to the people who deserve it, but I couldn't say goodbye to Ferguson.
"I will have no problems playing against United as this already happened in my career. But there's no point in looking back." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Manchester United v Fulham,
Live, ESPN, 5.30
Irish IndependentFollow @IndoSport