Red Devils need performance of fire as well as style from Berbatov to stay on course for four-in-a-row
MANCHESTER UNITED did not just lose their brightest star when Wayne Rooney fell to earth; they lost their best system.
Dimitar Berbatov leads the line against Chelsea today, but he needs company, whereas Rooney is glorious in isolation. If United are to win a blockbuster screened live in 211 countries, they must assiduously support Berbatov and he must raise his game. The title could depend on it.
For all his elegant touches, the 29-year-old with the alice band lacks the aggression to be a classic front-running centre-forward, being more Sheringham than Shearer, preferring to drop and link, threading passes through. Berbatov can slow a game down, often to intelligent effect, but it is still an issue in a United team so devastating on the counter this season.
In a meeting of such epic proportions, the level of Berbatov's hunger for imposing himself on John Terry and Petr Cech is of profound significance.
If Alex Ferguson's side prevail, they leap four points clear with five games remaining and goal difference swinging back their way.
This is the game of Berbatov's red-liveried life, the 90 minutes that will define his United legacy. For a player who misses the World Cup this summer, the Bulgarian can remind a global audience of his class. The 12.45pm kick-off is ideal for the Premier League's biggest territories -- Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. The growing market of intrigued Indians will enhance bumper figures.
Disappointed at not seeing Rooney, the world watches Berbatov with interest. The Stretford End also needs to be completely convinced. No pressure.
"The one thing you cannot dismiss is his ability, his talent,'' said Ferguson, speaking before training at Carrington yesterday.
"It's fantastic talent. If you are talking about a split of fans it's about 20-80 in his favour. About 80pc recognise his abilities -- no doubt about that. We sign a big player and if he's not scoring 50 goals a season -- and 16 overhead kicks included -- we're always going to get a dissenting voice somewhere along the line.
"Everyone's got their own favourites in football. I used to get a letter from a supporter saying I was off my head because I wasn't playing Steve Bruce centre-forward. I think it was Brucie writing it himself, or his granny! You are going to get diverse views from supporters, but in the main the supporters recognise the talent.''
A reflective character, Berbatov knows he does not usually fit into Ferguson's thinking for the major assignments -- when Rooney spearheads a 4-5-1 formation -- so his self-belief must have been tested this year.
Ferguson insisted otherwise. "It's not been a problem for the lad. The important thing is to sit down with the player and explain how you see the team playing in this particular game and why we do it. He's fine with it.
"When we've decided to go with the one striker, away from home in Europe in particular, it's been successful and it's not easy leaving a good player like that out.
"I brought Dimitar on against Bayern simply because we just couldn't keep possession in the way we normally do. It was ridiculous. Dimitar actually did improve the situation.''
Ferguson acknowledged that Berbatov replacing Rooney required tactical tinkering. "It is a different type of thing (approach) but we can play him as an individual up front on his own. He's proved that quite a few times; last year in Milan he did exactly that. What you need to have is good support for him.''
If Ferguson wants to maintain a semblance of 4-5-1, keeping bodies in midfield where Carlo Ancelotti's visitors are so powerful, Ji-Sung Park and Ryan Giggs could operate off Berbatov.
In the unfortunate absence of Michael Owen, a really adventurous, if risky, strategy would be to dismantle the golden triangle, omitting either Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick from central midfield, where Darren Fletcher so excels, and reconfiguring as 4-4-2 with the energetic Federico Macheda alongside Berbatov, a system the Bulgarian would certainly enjoy.
Just ask Spurs fans, who remember fondly Berbatov's productive partnership with Robbie Keane.
Macheda can expect some action, albeit from the bench. "He will definitely be involved in the next two games,'' said Ferguson of the young Italian's chances of facing either Chelsea or Bayern in Wednesday's return.
"The boy's an exceptional talent in the box. He's as good a talent as I've seen in a young player as a centre-forward. He's had a horrendous time with a groin injury for most of the season. Now he's been training with us for a full month and he's been looking great.''
Monday marks the anniversary of Macheda's spectacular introduction to the world, sprinting off the Old Trafford bench to score against Aston Villa. "It galvanised everyone, that's what scoring a late goal like that does for you. Two or three times over the years we've done it. For a young kid to do it, who's been on the pitch about 10 minutes, is 17 years of age and having the confidence and audacity to do what he did, earmarked him as having a really great chance of making it.''
Rarely more enthused than when discussing strikers, Ferguson was at his wry best in dismissing the country-wide "panic'' about Rooney's injury, opening yesterday's press briefing by announcing "the nation can stop praying'' as the England international will be out for only "two to three weeks''.
Although more a fan of Gloria Swanson than Gloria Gaynor, Ferguson nearly burst into 'I Will Survive' when debating whether life could possibly go on in Rooney's absence. First in the queue when the gods handed out the quality of defiance, Ferguson had noted all the one-man team headlines and all the predictions of the champions' season lying in 'Roo-ins'.
He bristled at a question of whether his remaining players could cope psychologically without Wazza the Wizard. "I'm sure they are not going to let this upset them,'' replied Ferguson, who may include Owen Hargreaves or John O'Shea on the bench.
"They know the incentive of this match against Chelsea. They know the incentive of Wednesday. Do you think they are honestly worrying whether Wayne Rooney is going to cost them it by not being there? Not at all. There's enough ability in this team to win without two or three of our players.
"They have done that a few times. He is a loss and you want all your best players available, but if you look at us this season it's not been the case.
"We've been missing defenders and struggled through and stumbled to the point where now we're a point ahead in the Premier League and in a quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich with an away-goal advantage and won the League Cup.''
Despite Chelsea's pace down the left, Ferguson had no fears for Gary Neville, whose mind remains alert but whose legs are clearly ageing.
Neville was twice skinned by Malouda's compatriot, Franck Ribery, in Munich. "Gary did well on Wednesday,'' retorted Ferguson, waving away mention of the full-back's expensive handball. "Oh, that's an accident. He just reacted. A handball! Crikey me!''
Talking of controversial characters, it is surprising that an average referee, Mike Dean, who loves a penalty, has been handed the domestic season's most important game.
Mark Clattenburg, Chris Foy, Martin Atkinson and Howard Webb have all endured wobbles but all eschew the officious schoolmaster approach that so aggrieves players and managers. All are superior. Sensibly, Ferguson refused to be drawn into any criticism of Dean. "You want good refereeing any time, no matter what game it is. It's silly for anyone to come out and have opinions on that.'' Before the match anyway.
Ferguson was more keen to pass comment on his counterpart. "Ancelotti is a man of great experience; he's won two European Cups. Great player, good lad. He's done his job well.''
For Ferguson's side to overwhelm Ancelotti's, Berbatov must do his job well. A footballer so naturally languid, he gets depicted as playing with a smoking jacket on. Manchester United's No 9 needs to be on fire today. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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