The invitation on one of the Old Trafford advertising hoardings reads: "Rewrite the rules of speed." It is the one promoting the boots worn by Wayne Rooney, whom the TV monitors captured sitting in the shadows at the back of an executive box yesterday, and it provided a painfully ironic commentary on the course of Manchester United's afternoon. No one in red was tearing up a rulebook, least of all Dimitar Berbatov, who could merely tear his hair out as the moment to make a serious demonstration of his £30.75m worth came and went.
Berbatov can be as demonstrative on the field of play as Rooney, at times, though the gestures and the grimaces tend to come when the course of a match is not running smoothly. There were a few of those gestures aimed at Antonio Valencia when the game had ticked beyond its 10th minute and Berbatov endeavoured to delay a pass to Valencia's right flank and spring the offside trap. Valencia waited; Berbatov waited, but there was no intuition between the two when the ball finally left the Bulgarian's right boot and it ran out into touch. Berbatov stared to the heavens. The game had moved on by several phases of football before he had finished gesticulating to his team-mate how that run might have been timed.
Crystallised in that single misunderstanding was the essence of what United had been deprived of by the loss of Rooney. The understanding between the Englishman and the Ecuadorean has seemed telepathic at times in the course of the past six weeks. Twice in Milan alone, Valencia served up crosses on to Rooney's head to score. But that's all gone for now. Valencia had the beating of Yuri Zhirkov in the first 10 minutes yesterday but when he left the Russian on his backside and crossed, Berbatov was only halfway into the penalty area. His header sailed over.
Ryan Giggs did not find Berbatov in much better humour. A ball down the left channel into the striker was blocked by Alex. A second reached the spot where he imagined the striker would make his run. Now it was Giggs' turn to throw up his hands. When Park Ji-Sung succeeded where the other providers had failed, spinning around on to Gary Neville's pass to play Berbatov through, Old Trafford held its breath. Frank Lampard's superior powers of anticipation – his left foot tackle came with no margin for error in the penalty area – killed the danger.
United staggered out of their torpor after the interval, though Berbatov still looked like an individual out of sync with his team-mates. There was a bad moment just before the hour when a darting run on to a Giggs free-kick left him off balance, stumbling towards the dead-ball line – and offside anyhow.
By the time his cleanest scoring opportunity arrived in the 90th minute – courtesy of one of many fine crosses delivered from Neville's right boot – his confidence was so shot at that stage that he failed to make a good connection. He smacked his knees in frustration at the end of an afternoon when one of the unflattering statistics of his season – he is yet to score against a side positioned higher than eighth in the Premier League table – came back to haunt United.
Berbatov's failure to ignite was not entirely self-inflicted – far from it. He might not rewrite the rules of speed but he can rewrite the laws of a football's motion when the right passes are played into him. There were none of those here. It was a rare afternoon when the presence of Giggs, Paul Scholes and Neville in the same starting XI made United seem aged, rather than evergreen.
The contrast when the Italian striker Federico Macheda arrived was palpable. He did not know much about the goal and there was a serious suspicion of handball to it but the 19-year-old, who has been through a yoga routine in the past year to help build him up physically, does make things happen. Three goals in six League appearances, and all of them during title run-ins. He wears a snappy pair of boots, too. The ones they promote on that advertising hoarding.
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