NOTHING sums up Dimitar Berbatov's complex relationship with Manchester United's sceptical supporters better than the rarity of adulatory chants in honour of the club's £30.75m record signing.
The Bulgarian may have taken his Premier League goal tally this season to 17 with his third league hat-trick of the campaign in this rout of Birmingham City, but if his popularity is to be measured by the regularity of songs sung in his name, he would be nestled somewhere between Wes Brown and John O'Shea.
One rendition of the Stretford End's acerbic reworking of ‘Jesus Chris Superstar’ was all that was afforded to Berbatov as he inspired United to a victory which became doubly important with Manchester City's defeat at Aston Villa three hours later.
After 2 years at Old Trafford, Berbatov appears finally to be earning the admiration of the club's supporters, but adulation is proving a more difficult commodity to secure.
Perhaps a necessity to persuade the club to extend his contract, which expires in June 2012, is driving Berbatov's upsurge in form this season, but there is no doubt that the former Tottenham forward, who will turn 30 next Sunday, is unrecognisable from the player who resembled a broken man at times last season.
Confidence and belief are now flowing through Berbatov – a marked contrast to the continuing travails of Wayne Rooney – and United first-team coach Rene Meulensteen, who has worked closely with the enigmatic forward, admits the player has finally learned how to feel comfortable in a United shirt.
“I said to him in training to think of himself as the best musician in the world and, as a team, we're the best orchestra in the world,” Meulensteen said. “Everyone is playing the same tune and Berba is elevating the whole performance.
“Berba sees the art and beauty of bringing a ball down from 30 yards, then flicking it through with a back-heel. It's an artistic approach which gives colour to the game and makes him colourful. He wants to be key for the team. He understands what he needs to do to be key for the team and that's clear in his performances.”
Crucially for a United team still waiting for Rooney to rediscover his goal touch of last season, Berbatov has added the mundane to the spectacular and he is now content to score goals which will not be contenders for goal of the month. His first against Birmingham, a poacher's header from two yards following O'Shea's flick from Ryan Giggs' corner, was the kind of predatory goal rarely associated with Berbatov.
There was more finesse to his second, with much credit owed to Rooney for the perfectly weighted pass which left his team-mate to cut inside before beating goalkeeper Ben Foster from 10 yards. Foster, sold to Birmingham by Alex Ferguson for £6m last summer, did little to prove his old club wrong as his vampire-like inability to deal with crosses returned to the fore. At one stage, mocking United fans chanted “Foster, give us a save” as the England ’keeper struggled to repel the red tide. He had little chance with United's third, however. A sweeping move, embellished by eye-catching interplay between Berbatov and Rooney, resulted in Giggs scoring from a tight angle at the far post on the stroke of half-time.
Game over for Birmingham, but United continued to turn the screw after the interval and Rooney should have made it 4-0 two minutes into the second-half before heading Nani's farpost cross wide from three yards.
Rooney is working tremendously hard for United, but he is a shadow of his former self in front of goal. Old Trafford has not witnessed a Rooney goal since a penalty against West Ham in August and, as Ferguson's players swamped Birmingham, it was noticeable that their first option was to find Berbatov or Giggs. The ball does not gravitate towards Rooney anymore.
He played a key role in Berbatov's hattrick goal by brilliantly controlling Edwin van der Sar's up-and-under before releasing Giggs to tee up the striker, but Rooney clearly needs, and wants, a goal judging by his increasingly angry reaction to Nani's failure to pick him out during the game.
Nani's goal, a 20-yard strike, completed Birmingham's misery, but manager Alex McLeish admits his priority now is to inject new blood into his team, who face West Ham in the League Cup semi-final at St Andrew's on Wednesday looking to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the away leg.
McLeish said: “We need another striker with a bit of experience, who knows his way about in the penalty box, and I have been saying that since the summer. I can only ask the board, then it is up to them. I can't do everything at the football club. I have to leave the finances up to them.” (© Daily Telegraph, London)