It has been so long since Dimitar Berbatov last scored in Europe that his manager has lost track of the time. Reminded yesterday that 18 games and two and a half years have elapsed since the Bulgarian's two tap-ins saw off Celtic at Old Trafford, Ferguson paused. "I wasn't aware of that," he said, falteringly, before regaining his poise. "He's capable of scoring all the time and he's got that ability. He's done very well for us this season and hopefully that continues."
That last part was not an entirely accurate assessment of the Bulgarian's season. In the seven games since his two goals at Blackpool completed the most memorable of many United comebacks in their Premier League campaign, Berbatov has not found the net and his failure to score in five Champions League appearances have contributed to a fairly desultory campaign. United's seven European games have yielded only seven goals this season and none of Ferguson's players has scored more than once. Even Bebe and Gabriel Obertan have a fresher recollection of how it feels to score in continental competition than Berbatov.
The No 9 is not the only one who has failed to fire. This is a European campaign in which Wayne Rooney has also failed to register a goal. But one of Ferguson's frustrations with Berbatov is that he delivers all – hat-tricks against Birmingham and Liverpool, five goals against Blackburn – or nothing. It has been the same in Europe. Berbatov's four United goals in continental competition were the two against Celtic and two in the Danish town of Aalborg – the size of opposition on those occasions reinforcing the notion that he tends to deliver when the pressure is off.
It is not always Berbatov's struggle to enter games which is a trouble. The less experienced United players get caught up in the welter of negativity which spins around the complex mind of his: Chris Smalling was on the receiving end of it at Anfield and did not deserve that.
An early strike or two from Berbatov would settle things tonight, Ferguson knows. Keen to view tonight's visitors operate away from home, he saw their 2-0 win in Rennes on Friday night and expects an intense opening. "They'll be planning on how they are going to score a goal and I think they'll try to start the game very quickly, that's a certainty. We have to be prepared for that."
That is why a reminder of Berbatov's brilliance would be so welcome. The frustration for United is compounded by the fact that his excellent record on the Continent is one of the reasons they spent £30.5m for him in the first place. In Europe he has scored 32 goals in 73 games, including the Europa League and Champions League and an eye-catching 28 in 53 before arriving at United.
Ferguson was on the receiving end, of course. Berbatov played for the Bayer Leverkusen side which sent them out of the tournament at the semi-final stage in 2002. His is a record that once made him the talk of the Continent. Louis van Gaal, whose Bayern Munich put United out of last season's Champions League, badly wanted to buy him from Leverkusen before Tottenham moved in.
Berbatov is certainly in a better place this spring than last, when Ferguson's decision to play a 4-5-1, spearheaded by Rooney, in United's most important games, confined him to the margins. Back then, it had been hard to see a future beyond this summer for him, though the "one-way" option United have to extend his contract by a year to the end of 2012-13 means that without the need for negotiation they will prolong the relationship, probably when this season is out.
The initial anxiety created by the absence of an away goal in Marseilles had dissipated by yesterday – with the prevailing mood coalescing around the notion that Old Trafford being Old Trafford, United would progress. But with United's elimination by no means inconceivable and Didier Deschamps on the warpath after Ferguson's suggestion that his side had been negative in the first leg, it is the perfect occasion for Berbatov to prove he can still be the continental predator he once was.