Saturday 16 December 2017

Did United get the wrong man?

Mark Ogden

It was in the rural town of Herning, the unremarkable capital of the Danish region of Midtjylland, that Manchester City began to plot their audacious attempt to hijack Manchester United's year-long pursuit of Dimitar Berbatov.

Senior City officials, having watched Mark Hughes' team squeeze past FC Midtjylland to win their Uefa Cup second qualifying round tie on penalties, had been informed that associates of the financially crippled owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, had struck black gold by tempting "seriously wealthy people" from the Middle East to accelerate their exit strategy from Eastlands.

It was August 28, 2008, and Hughes had been told that Berbatov, a player on the manager's fantasy wish-list, was now within City's reach.

Hughes, frustrated by Shinawatra's false promises, brushed aside his scepticism and went along with the plan, assured that, this time, it was for real. Four days later, a financial earthquake hit Manchester as Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan completed an astonishing £210m takeover of Eastlands and, from scraping together Shinawatra's loose change to complete the £6.45m deal for Pablo Zabaleta 24 hours earlier, Hughes now possessed football's healthiest transfer fund.


Berbatov, agitating for a move from Tottenham to United, was now the subject of a £30m bid from City. He boarded a plane to Manchester, but the world was left guessing as to whether he was heading for the blue half of the city or the red.

Yet despite City's best efforts, Berbatov only had eyes for Old Trafford. He rejected City, completed his £30.75m dream transfer to United and left Hughes to snatch Robinho from Chelsea's grasp instead.

Away from the deadline-day madness, Carlos Tevez was waiting for United to finalise their transfer business before addressing the formality of turning his two-year loan agreement into a permanent move to Old Trafford.

That was the plan. Alex Ferguson and United chief executive David Gill had spoken publicly about their intention to secure Tevez on a five-year contract. But as Berbatov walked into Old Trafford shortly before midnight on September 1, the sun began to set on Tevez's United career. It was the 'Sliding Doors' moment of Mancunian football.

Had Berbatov chosen City rather than United, would Tevez have been allowed to leave Old Trafford for Eastlands? Would City have even pursued the Argentine had they snared Berbatov? Yet as they prepare to come face-to-face in today's 154th Manchester derby, the fortunes of the two men could not contrast more sharply.

Tevez is adored at City, his 28 goals this season having transformed the club from underachievers into a team on the brink of the Champions League.

He has become an icon, the city's most-talked about player since Eric Cantona. United fans loathe him only because they once loved him so much.

Berbatov? The Bulgarian cannot even lay claim to a regular starting spot at United. None of his 12 goals this season have come against top-seven opposition or in the Champions League. His languid style has earned admiration and condemnation in equal measure.

And there is now a growing argument suggesting that Berbatov's long-awaited arrival at Old Trafford actually sparked the striker crisis now facing Ferguson. Yet despite Tevez's heroics, which have breathed new life and charisma into City, Ferguson maintains he does not regret losing the player.

"I've got no regrets at all," Ferguson insisted. "None whatsoever. We tried to buy him, but we didn't match the money they (Tevez's economic rights holders) wanted, therefore the boy moved on. There is no bitterness for me. Players leave here, some do well, some don't. You just have to move on."

At the suggestion of City supporters, Tevez will be honoured by a pre-match airing of the Prodigy's 'Firestarter' today. Ferguson might even allow himself a rueful chuckle at that.

The only statistics that truly matter when comparing Tevez and Berbatov are the goals scored by each player. Standing at 28 against 12 in Tevez's favour this season, there is only one winner in that particular battle.

But Berbatov is not all bad. He creates a scoring chance for a team-mate every 39.5 minutes compared to Tevez's one every 51.9 minutes, yet Tevez outscores Berbatov seven to four in terms of assists for goals this season.

Ironically, despite the criticism directed his way, Berbatov has a greater chance-conversion rate (19pc v 16pc) for United than Spurs. He also scores goals more regularly (one every 209 minutes as opposed to one every 212 minutes) for United.

While Tevez bemoaned his reduced involvement at United last season, which contributed to his tally of just five Premier League goals, Berbatov has kept his own counsel on suggestions that he is being misused by United.

Playing as a lone striker does not suit the 29-year-old, yet Ferguson is unconvinced of the merits of pairing him with Wayne Rooney.

And the accusations of laziness also appear misplaced, with Berbatov's perspiration heavily outweighing his inspiration in recent weeks.

Berbatov was recruited to take United to new heights, but how would the Mancunian football landscape now look had he chosen blue instead of red when he stepped off that plane 20 months ago? (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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