Sir Alex Ferguson admitted yesterday that 20 per cent of Manchester United supporters have not taken to Dimitar Berbatov, the player who must assume Wayne Rooney's mantle against Chelsea today, but insisted that divergent views on every player were inevitable in football.
"I would have thought it's maybe 20/80 in his favour," Ferguson said of Berbatov, who has 12 goals to Rooney's 34 this season. "I think about 80 per cent of fans recognise his abilities. We sign a big player and if he's not scoring 50 goals a season and 16 overhead kicks included we are always going to get a dissenting voice along the line."
Even Steve Bruce, Ferguson's one-time captain, whose two headed goals against Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993 effectively secured the manager his first English title, divided opinion, Ferguson said. "I used to get a letter from a supporter saying I was off my head because I didn't play Steve Bruce centre forward. I think it was Brucie writing it himself, or his granny writing it! You are going to get diverse views from supporters but I think in the main they recognise the talent."
Ferguson – whose suggestion that he will be without Rooney for "two to three weeks" makes a return in the 17 April Manchester derby an outside possibility – provided a sense of how he plans to operate without him, citing Berbatov's role as a lone striker against Internazionale in San Siro last February. It seems an ominous example, given that United drew 0-0, but their failure to score owed much to Jose Mourinho's goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, with Ferguson relying on Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Park Ji-sung to push into advanced positions in support of Berbatov. The Bulgarian as lone striker is "a different type of thing" to Rooney, Ferguson said. "But we can play him on his own as an individual up front. What you need to have is good support for him."
Ferguson used his press conference to send a message to the 19-year-old Italian striker Federico Macheda, whose season has been curtailed by a groin injury. The United manager is not know for extravagant praise of young players – he likes them to maintain a sense of perspective – but he declared him to be "as good a talent as I've seen in a young player as a centre forward", and cited Macheda's late goal against Aston Villa last April as evidence that he has a big future in the game.
"For a young kid, who's just come on and been on the pitch for about 10 minutes [to have] the confidence and audacity to do what he did earmarked him as having a great chance of making it," the manager said. "He seems physically a strong boy, a big lad. He's not had a lot of football in the last six months but he's been training really well and we're pleased with that."
Giggs may well be asked to supply more forward momentum, possibly at the expense of Luis Nani, today with the energy of Park and Darren Fletcher complementing Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia in midfield. Ferguson said he would name either Owen Hargreaves or John O'Shea on the bench after their long injury-enforced absences.
He had no explanation for his side's inability to maintain possession during the 2-1 midweek defeat at Bayern Munich. "We have to improve," he said. "It is difficult to say why we were so poor at keeping possession because it has always been a really strong part of our game. Maybe it was just one of those nights. I suppose I have to think that way."