Every time Alex Ferguson tried out a new signing on his old chairman Martin Edwards, in the pre-1993 days when he and Manchester United were on their uppers, he'd insist he was "the final piece in the puzzle". Viv Anderson, Brian McClair, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes. Always touted as Fergie's final piece and almost always not.
In a sense Dimitar Berbatov, who emerged from behind a door with his beaming manager yesterday afternoon in an entry so theatrical that it seemed to demand a round of applause, was yet another final piece; the target man Wayne Rooney isn't and whom United have already seemed in need of, with only two goals from three league games. But for once Ferguson can settle back to watch his acquisition -- who heads straight into the encounter Ferguson relishes like none other: Liverpool at Anfield, boosted by the unexpected return of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard -- safe in the knowledge that his squad was already pretty much complete.
That, Ferguson said yesterday, is why the inevitable comparisons with Eric Cantona -- another brooding, artistic proponent of the dreamy ball skills, the game-changing touch, the arrogant bravado -- have their limitations. "When Eric came, United were fighting to get to the top and he opened the gate for us in many ways," Ferguson said. "(Now) it's a different situation. With Dimitar, there is less pressure on the team because we've had a consistent run of success over the last few years. When a new player used to come here he was the guy who was going to solve all the problems. Today that doesn't apply."
Berbatov declined comparisons with the old Diable Rouge, which Ferguson invited by declaring the £31m Bulgarian's physical presence to be a quality missing around Old Trafford since Cantona and Sheringham.
"I have my own style and I don't want to be compared with anyone else," he said. "Maybe in the future when I stop playing you will ask some young players the same question about me. That is why I play. I try to entertain. Try to make people smile with my game." In his eloquence alone, the spirit of Cantona was reborn.
Ferguson is relaxing more than when Cantona was around. Resolving to use the international break to rest, he has been to the south of France for a few days and his mood was lightened by the news that Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick are back in his squad for today's lunchtime encounter, with Cristiano Ronaldo a contender for a Champions League comeback against Villarreal at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The latter represents an extraordinary recovery time.
Ferguson can also take satisfaction from the fact that Liverpool - a side in the ascendancy in those wilderness years of his - barely touch him now. Rafael Benitez has recorded a draw and seven defeats in his eight league encounters with Ferguson and his only goal in that time was the one John O'Shea put into his own net in 2004. Ferguson was even brushing away talk of equalling Liverpool's record 18 titles -- an aspiration which he can accomplish this May.
Liverpool, for whom an improvement on four points taken from other top four teams last season is key to any title challenge, could hardly be in greater disarray.
A mass protest is expected from fans who want Tom Hicks and George Gillett out and it is believed that Gillett, who will be at the game, has been advised to abandon plans to stay at Liverpool's Malmaison hotel for his own safety.
Benitez insisted he would not change his approach to United. "We can talk about it all day, but the fact is that United have a very good team, and playing against them is difficult. If you score first then you can have more confidence," he said.
Benitez, who will give a debut to new left winger Albert Riera, is clearly irritated by suggestions from Ferguson that his £19m buy Robbie Keane was overpriced -- "Maybe he should look at how much money they are paying for a lot of players. The last time we played them they had around £70m worth of players on the bench," he said. (© Independent News Service)