Berbatov lets Ferguson dream of more glory

Striker boosts Manchester United's hopes of retaining European Cup while Wenger has to trust his young guns. By Steve Tongue
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The Independent Online

Manchester United will do it their way, Arsenal will do it theirs, and both claim to be equally confident of ending up at another Champions' League final in Rome next May.

Widely admired as the two most entertaining teams in the country last season, when United received their rewards and their old rivals did not, they have pursued a typically different path during the summer.

Sir Alex Ferguson left it late but secured the man he wanted in Dimitar Berbatov at a cost in excess of £30m; Arsène Wenger reluctantly oversaw the release of three midfield players and signed only one established replacement, putting his faith in the continuing development of younger players while aiming verbal darts at the two Manchester clubs for their methods.

His beef with United, though he steered clear of naming them, stemmed from a belief that they had acted improperly over the purchase of Berbatov, once a Champions' League finalist with Bayer Leverkusen, whose experience of the competition (he scored against both United and Liverpool) can only add to the holders' chances of retaining their European title – something no club have achieved since Milan 18 years ago.

Arsenal, Wenger said, "tried till the last second of the deadline [to sign players] but we respected the rules. Some clubs told me they wouldn't sell so I respected that."

Liverpool's Xabi Alonso was a player Arsenal wanted to replace the departed central midfielder Mathieu Flamini, but Wenger nevertheless believes that with his £10m signing Samir Nasri making a good impression in Alexander Hleb's position and Robin van Persie fit again, Arsenal can improve on their previous best, the unlucky failure in the 2006 final against Barcelona.

"Yes, I believe that, because of the strength of my players and the strength of my team," said Wenger. "You can buy the players who can [help] bring you the Champions' League but you cannot buy it." He said of United's neighbours City and their new-found wealth: "Our environment rules us out completely because we don't behave the same way. People sell the story to our fans that because we don't buy players for £135m, we cannot win. We have to be strong enough to say that yes, we can win."

Arsenal, who make the long trip to Dynamo Kiev in midweek – Porto and Fenerbahce are the other teams in their section – have come through the group stage every year since 2000. United, too, can normally be relied upon to do so, their one notable failure being the last time they were drawn with Wednesday's opponents, Villarreal. Two goalless draws against the Spaniards in 2005 contributed to the humiliation of finishing bottom of the group, scoring only three times in six games.

By adding Berbatov to Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and soon Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferguson should have ensured that will not happen again in a group also including Celtic and the Danish outsiders Aalborg.

"He's got that composure about him and a canniness in the last third of the field to pick a pass," the manager said of the Bulgarian, "and he gives a different threat in the air that we've probably not had since Teddy Sheringham and Dwight Yorke.

"He's got a great physical presence, which I think we've needed. And when you play with great players, and Wayne will experience this, it's bound to help you. But I've no fears for Rooney. I keep reading that Wayne's not doing this and not doing that but it's not as if he's ever had a really terrible period."

What of Berbatov's reputation as an arrogant sulker? The player himself, so quietly spokenit is often difficult to catch what he is saying, would only say: "I know what my abilities are and what I can do on the pitch. That helps me through difficult times."

Times were frustrating at Leverkusen, the unfashionable German club who in 2002 finished runners-up in the German league and cup as well as the Champions' League. Tottenham could not supply the winners' medals he wanted either, and after making it clear which club could, he was happy for Ferguson to act as taxi driver at Manchesterairport and whisk him away for what ought to be a profitable partnership.

His new boss nevertheless warned: "It's not an easy trophy to win, and to retain it is very difficult. But I think we've a chance. I don't think you can say we're red-hot favourites, but the way I'm approaching it is justto get over the group stage. Barcelona will be a big team this year with a new coach in [Pep] Guardiola, and I think the English sides will all do well again. There's a consistency about English teams going into Europe now, they're always there and hopefully it's an all-English final again with us winning it."

Where he is united with Wenger is in talking up this week's opposition: "Villarreal are a very difficult team to beat. They've had the same very good coach [Manuel Pellegrini] for five years now, never out of Europe since he went there. It'll be a hard game."

Similarly Wenger on Kiev: "They knocked out Spartak Moscow and you know how strong the Russian league is at the moment. I know we have a tough draw and it will be a massive challenge for us. All the teams in our group have Champions' League experience and can all take points from each other. Starting well will be very, very important." And so say all of them.

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