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Berbatov gets another chance to make his case


Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov
in action at training yesterday

Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov in action at training yesterday

Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov in action at training yesterday

Alex Ferguson may believe that in dealing with television, you have to "shake hands with the devil", however, should you wish to play for the Red Devils, there is a similar bargain to be made.

It was put very succinctly by Michael Owen after his two goals overcame Leeds in the Carling Cup last week: "What harms your chance of a place is that we are all so bloody good. The strikers here are fabulous."

The choice for any centre-forward who is not Wayne Rooney is very straightforward at Old Trafford. You can leave and earn a starring role in amateur dramatics or you can have a bit part at the National Theatre.

Unlike Owen, Dimitar Berbatov did not join Manchester United to be in the chorus line. He cost £30m and, despite finding the net only twice since the end of January, he was the Premier League's joint top scorer.

He was not deemed worthy of a place in the squad for the European Cup final at Wembley and was ignored when Ferguson came to select his side to face Benfica in Lisbon, which on the surface was Manchester United's trickiest match in a straightforward group.

All strikers, however much their manager praises their "attitude" and "team spirit", have egos, and should the Bulgarian not be in the starting line-up against Basle tonight, his will have received a significant bruise. Rooney will miss this match and Saturday's encounter with Norwich, which is likely to see Javier Hernandez return.

"I don't need to reassure him," Ferguson said of a man who was given his first Premier League start of the season in the 1-1 draw at Stoke on Saturday evening. "They understand that having a big squad gives them a better chance of winning things. They accepted that a long time ago."

Manchester United's dominance at Old Trafford has been so complete -- they have lost only one of their last 32 Champions League fixtures there and that a dead game against Besiktas -- that this match seems almost routine.

However, for Ashley Young, only a few months into his Manchester United career, routine is not a word that comes to mind.

"To play for Manchester United in the big competitions is any boy's dream," he said. "I understood the size of the club the moment I went on tour with them to the United States. "You are aware of the players around you and you know you have to play at the top of your game to survive. "Although there have been only a few games so far, I have been delighted with my performances. I have wanted to do well every time I have pulled on a red shirt.

"You come to a club like Manchester United to be challenged and I want to be challenged at the very top.

"When I knew of their interest, there was only one place I wanted to go. You have to be on your toes 24/7 here because there is always someone who wants your place."

That is a concept Berbatov understands only too well.

There is another at Old Trafford that says only winning matters. When asked whether the last four-and-a-half years have been a golden age of European football for Manchester United, Ferguson sniffily retorted that since they had only won the European Cup once in that period, the answer was no. The fact that they only once failed to make the semi-finals was swept aside.

Having played for Bayern Munich, his counterpart, Thorsten Fink, would be familiar with Ferguson's sentiments.

The last time the Basle manager faced United was in the 1999 European Cup final, a match which for all the German dominance, only the final three minutes of stoppage time counted.

Basle run on different lines to Bayern and Fink would be thrilled to repeat the 1-1 draw the Swiss champions secured at Old Trafford in March 2003 when the Champions League was still encumbered by a second group stage.

Their victory over the Romanian makeweights, Otelul Galati, at St Jakob Park has given Basle an early lead in Group C.

United are likely to be without three central defenders because of injuries to Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic, who Ferguson hopes to see returning to captain the club after next month's international break.

Nevertheless, when faced with similar circumstances in December 2009, Wolfsburg, who were the then champions of Germany, were unable to break through a thoroughly makeshift defence composed of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher.

Owen will remember the game as one where he scored his second Champions League hat-trick. It is for moments like these for which he and, increasingly, Berbatov, now exist.

Meanwhile, Rooney's inclusion for England's crucial Euro 2012 qualifying tie with Montenegro could be in doubt, after Ferguson admitted he does not know when the Manchester United striker will be ready to return to first-team action.

The Scot confirmed Rooney would miss tonight's Champions League fixture, but of more concern to the United manager and England boss Fabio Capello will be Ferguson's acknowledgement that it is "difficult to say" when he will be ready to play again.

"It is hard to assess a hamstring injury," Ferguson said.

"He did a bit of jogging yesterday but that is all. We hope we get him back quickly, but it is difficult to say."

Rooney sustained the injury in training last Friday morning, ruling him out of United's 1-1 draw with Stoke.

Neither manager will relish replacing Rooney, who had scored nine goals in the first five Premier League games of United's season before suffering his injury.

old trafford HOME RULE

•United have an exceptional home record in the Champions League. Since their 1-0 defeat by Milan in the last 16 in 2005, they have lost just one of their last 32 home Champions League games. That defeat was to Besiktas in 2009, when United had already qualified.

•Since that game they have won six and drawn two, including last 16, quarter-final and semi-final wins last year.

•They have beaten Milan, Roma, Barcelona, Inter, Arsenal, Valencia and Chelsea at Old Trafford, since 2005. (© Independent News Service)

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