Dimitar Berbatov should be basking in adulation and casting a confident glance at the Footballer of the Year awards, having become the first player to hit 20 Premier League goals this season, yet nothing is ever quite so straightforward with Manchester United’s enigmatic centre-forward.
By Mark Ogden
The Bulgarian might just have conjured the defining moment of the title race by scoring the 88th minute winner against Bolton which stretched United’s lead over Arsenal at the top of the table to five points.While Wayne Rooney was out of sorts or out of favour, Berbatov’s goals also led to crucial victories against Liverpool, Blackburn, Sunderland and Blackpool, but his reward appears to be a place on the substitutes’ bench and indifference from Sir Alex Ferguson.
Leading scorer or not, Berbatov has started just two of United’s last nine games in all competitions. He may be the club’s record signing, at £30.75m, but he is now having to watch Javier Hernández, whose £7m fee was less than a quarter of Berbatov’s, forge a promising partnership with Rooney.
Berbatov is also waiting for the club to end the uncertainty over his future. Since the end of last season, seven of Berbatov’s senior team-mates have negotiated new contracts at Old Trafford, yet the 30-year-old continues to wait for chief executive David Gill to ask for his signature on a new deal.
United hold all the cards on that issue. When Berbatov arrived at Old Trafford from Spurs in Sept 2008, his four-year contract included a one-way clause in United’s favour enabling the club to extend his deal by one year at any time they chose.
So there is no urgency on United’s part to top up Berbatov’s wages. His contract might expire in 2012, but in reality, United can tag on a further 12 months whenever they choose.
Having played a major role in United’s title challenge, Berbatov might justifiably believe he has done all he can to earn a contract extension.
Others might argue that his dismal first two years at Old Trafford have left him with ground to make up.
Still, without Berbatov’s intervention against Bolton, United’s title credentials would be looking as battered and bruised as their injury list this morning.
A half-time replacement for Hernández, Berbatov won the game for United when he reacted to goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen’s failure to hold Nani’s 20-yard strike and bundled the rebound into the net from six yards.
“He [Berbatov] is a good striker.” Nani said. “He can always score goals like that and he’s a very important player for us. But the secret is that United always play until the last minute and today was the same.”
Old Trafford erupted, sensing it had witnessed a goal as pivotal as those scored in previous title run-ins by the likes of Federico Macheda and Steve Bruce. Negotiating the final eight league games and securing a 19th league title is the immediate priority for Ferguson, however, and his task will not have been helped by a calf injury sustained by Wes Brown and the 76th minute dismissal of Jonny Evans, who will now serve a three-match ban, following the studs up challenge which left Stuart Holden with a deep gash on his knee.
Ferguson, serving the first of a five-game touchline ban for criticising referee Martin Atkinson, publicly backed Andre Marriner’s decision.
“It [Holden’s knee] wasn’t the prettiest sight,” said Bolton defender David Wheater. “Jonny Evans is a big, tough defender and, most times, defenders come out on top in those situations. It’s hard to not get hurt in those tackles, so I just hope Stuart gets better.” Despite the loss of Evans, United ultimately produced another example of their ability to salvage desperate situations in the dying stages and midfielder Michael Carrick could not overstate the importance of Berbatov’s goal.
“To get the win is a massive lift for us and a huge result.” Carrick said. “We kept pushing and believing we’d get the chance to score. Thankfully we did and Berba tucked it away. It feels like a huge three points.
“It would be nice at the end of the season to be champions and look back and say ‘today was a good day’.”