When Manchester United signed Dimitar Berbatov for a club record £30.75m three seasons ago, fans knew they were gaining an enigmatic talent. Hidden behind his nonchalance and apparent laziness were moments of brilliance and the Old Trafford faithful felt Sir Alex Ferguson could be the best manager to get this out of him as he did with Eric Cantona.
The Bulgarian made a good start to his Manchester career, netting five times in his opening eight games before finishing the season on fourteen goals in all competitions. Twelve followed in 2009/10 and this year he is the Premiership’s leading scorer with 21 goals adding to a total of 47 in 123 Manchester outings. But, he finds himself approaching the final year of his contract playing second fiddle to Wayne Rooney and Javier Henandez. With fans seemingly losing patience in his sulkish behaviour and habit of going missing in big games, speculation is rife that the former Tottenham striker could be on his way out of Old Trafford.
Berbatov would not be short of suitors across Europe. For example, AC Milan are believed to be interested, perhaps seeing the striker as a cheaper alternative to current loanee and similarly temperamental forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But this is still the Premiership’s leading scorer this season and with an inconsistent Rooney and ageing Michael Owen, why would Manchester United be willing to cash in on him?
Whilst he has scored a staggering 21 goals this season, it is worth noting that eight of these came in the space of the two home drubbings of Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City and only four have come away from home. He is also yet to score in Europe this season despite Manchester’s continuing run to the semi finals of the Champions League.
Berbatov’s style of play is often ill-suited to Manchester United’s fast, counter-attacking style of football. Whilst the likes of Rooney, Hernandez and Nani look to attack with speed and power, the Bulgarian prefers to slow the ball down and strike with style and composure.
But with a tendency to take one touch too many and get caught in possession when a quick pass would do, he has often incurrent the moans of the Stretford End. And, whilst players with strong work ethic such as Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea and Park Ji-Sung never seem to stop running for 90 minutes, Berbatov can often been seen lumbering at the opposite end of the pitch leading many to question his commitment.
So, with a strong season on paper behind him and with several potential foreign suitors, perhaps now would be the best time to cash in on the Bulgarian. But Berbatov would need replacing and this could be the real challenge. This is a player who, despite being a record signing, has been happy to play second fiddle to the likes of Tevez, Rooney and now Chicharito but has still scored goals.
With Michael Owen’s contract expiring at the end of the season and with Bebe still to prove himself, the real question Ferguson must ask is whether he can find a suitable replacement without breaking the bank.
Richard Perry writes regularly for FootbalFanCast.com