Tormented Berbatov in the dark over his future at United

Leading scorer left out of squad for the final after failing to make his mark in the matches that matter

Ian Herbert
Monday 30 May 2011 00:00

"I'm always thinking of the worst and hoping for the best. You are going to have these dark moments." The demons which assailed Dimitar Berbatov as he struggled to make his way at Manchester United two seasons ago, and which he described so vividly in an interview last autumn, were those of a man confined to the margins of the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. Imagine how he feels to have been written off the page at Wembley – the United record signing who could not even make it on to the bench.

The torment may get worse before it gets better, with United ahead of Liverpool in the race to buy Ashley Young and Sir Alex Ferguson keen to wrap up that piece of business before he heads off on holiday on 1 July. Berbatov's 20 league goals counted for little when Ferguson weighed the options on Friday. When the time came to play the last, most significant hand of the season, the old gambler's instinct told him that Michael Owen was the one with the ice in his veins, if the moment came.

It didn't require the mind of a tactical genius to work that much out. Berbatov's goal against Bolton in March is the only one he has scored for United in 16 appearances coming off the bench while Owen's five league goals in the past two seasons have all been as a substitute. Berbatov's absence from the Wembley pitch at the end on Saturday – though he was in the dressing room – was far removed from the way Owen has contended with his descent into relative obscurity. Just a decade ago Owen collected the Ballon d'Or in Zurich, yet here he is now, focusing his entire week on the prospect of perhaps a 10-minute cameo role. Owen's description of the physiological effects of bending a week's work and diet towards a sub's appearance which doesn't materialise gave us comfortably the most engaging interview at Carrington last week. He has demons, too.

Owen seems to have accepted with equanimity that this is what goes with the territory at Old Trafford and Luis Nani, too, despite his reward for collecting the United player of the season award being a substitute's role at Wembley. "It is difficult because we have ambition to play every game, to be in the first XI in a final," Nani said, dispelling once again suggestions that he yearns for Italy or Spain. "It's not the players who make the decision, it's the manager and you have to respect that. I'm still young and I know I will get more opportunities."

But Berbatov is six years Nani's senior and his head look scrambled as early as last Tuesday when he marched through a Champions League interview zone at Carrington, repelling all questions. Somehow, you felt this storm coming.

Nani offered no platitudes about the mountain Berbatov has to climb and he is certainly qualified to discuss the emotions which come with that sense of exclusion. In April 2008, Nani marched out of Old Trafford early when his removal at half-time against Tottenham meant he had been had been substituted on each of six league starts and never made it beyond 70 minutes. "It's a very difficult moment for him, but not [like] my position," Nani said of Berbatov.

"I was in a different position because I was still very young back then. I was 21 and I knew I had a lot of time to learn, to improve and get my place in the team. For him, I don't know what [the manager] has in mind but everyone knows he's a fantastic player, he has scored a lot of goals, finished as the top scorer in the league." To which Ferguson might observe that none of Berbatov's 20 domestic goals has come against top five clubs and none when it has come at the crunch. Berbatov has started only 25 of United's most significant 55 fixtures since he joined the club, because on occasions like this season's FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City and last season's pivotal home match with Chelsea he has not delivered. Not ideal for the bench, not ideal for the big games and not ideal for Europe, he does look like a luxury.

"I don't know which players will be coming in, but most important is that the ones who stay fight for us," Nani concluded. But how much fight does Berbatov have left in him? The growing sense from within Old Trafford is that Owen, the man for all seasons, will be the one who gets another year. Berbatov's four-year deal included a one-way clause in United's favour, enabling the club to extend by one year at any time they choose. They are in no rush.

Plenty or poverty?

* Berbatov finished as the Premier League's top scorer last season with 20, which included a hat-trick against Liverpool. But the 30-year-old scored the majority of his goals against the division's lesser sides and recorded many of them during individual games.

* He scored five against Blackburn in November, two to beat Sunderland in December, three against Birmingham and two at Blackpool in January.

* The Bulgarian failed to find the net in 21 of his 32 league games last season.

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