When a manager picks his team for crucial fixtures at the defining stage of a season, reliability is everything and that is pretty much why Sir Alex Ferguson will once again leave Dimitar Berbatov out of the Manchester United side to face Chelsea on Tuesday night.
Berbatov’s goal against Fulham on Saturday took him to 21 in the Premier League this season and he remains the league’s top scorer this campaign.
But when it comes to the big games, Berbatov usually finds himself on the bench. He hasn’t started any of United’s games against Arsenal or Chelsea this season and, for Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final, I just can’t see Ferguson accommodating him in the starting XI.
Sir Alex does not show mercy when it comes to picking his team. Some might think that Berbatov deserves some compassion considering that he is the league’s leading scorer, but this is big-time football, trophies are at stake and, in this situation, Ferguson will always go with his best team.
A manager has to have total trust in a player in order to start him in the biggest games and Sir Alex clearly believes that Berbatov, when games are tight and there is a need for something extra, falls short.
He is a top-class player with classic technique. He is a phenomenal talent and should be one of the first names on the team-sheet, but if Berbatov wants to be starting every game, he has to say so with his actions.
For all of Wayne Rooney’s problems this season, he is the first name on the team-sheet because he delivers at crucial stages and in the big games. His goals against Manchester City and Chelsea in recent weeks, and his hat-trick at West Ham last Saturday, highlight his ability to make a difference.
When I wrote about Berbatov in this column following his five-goal display against Blackburn in November, I suggested that he had to ‘deliver when it is tense and tight’ and that he also had to ‘score when it is difficult for him and the team.’ Barring the odd late goal against Birmingham and Bolton, he hasn’t done that. That’s why Sir Alex feels that, at this point in time, Berbatov offers more as a substitute.
Look at Javier Hernandez. When he is on the pitch, he will always give 100 per cent and try to find space to make something happen.
Berbatov is much more laconic and, if you had never seen him play before, it would be impossible to watch him and say whether he was struggling or having a great game simply because of the way he plays.
When a centre-forward is firing, they often have an air of invincibility about them, but you don’t see that with Berbatov and it appears as though Sir Alex has come to the conclusion that others are more reliable when it matters.
Another problem that Berbatov must overcome if he is to reclaim his starting place is the blossoming partnership between Rooney and Hernandez, which looks much better than the Rooney-Berbatov pairing. As a defender, facing Rooney and Berbatov is relatively easy because Rooney will always take a position just off the front man and look to play balls around the corner for his partner to latch onto.
But Berbatov’s natural instinct is to come to the ball and hold it, so it can slow United down and make life easier for defenders, who don’t have to worry about being turned for pace.
With Hernandez around, everything changes because he gives Rooney the option he likes by offering a presence on the shoulder of the last defender.
When Rooney sprung onto the international scene at Euro 2004, he had Michael Owen in his prime to look for and now, Hernandez gives him something similar.
Hernandez offers a total contrast to Berbatov, but there have been times when his partnership with Rooney hasn’t worked quite so well.
In the league game at Chelsea last month, Ferguson started with Rooney and Hernandez, with Berbatov on the bench, but it went wrong for United because the Mexican did not hold the ball up well enough. By the time Berbatov replaced him, it was too late.
A pattern has started to develop recently, however, whereby Sir Alex either starts with Rooney on his own or with Rooney alongside Hernandez. I don’t see that changing against Chelsea.
That is because Sir Alex demands everything from his players when it comes to the matches that really matter and he no longer believes he can get that from Berbatov.
He hasn’t been a bad signing for United because he has scored a lot of goals to put his team in a position to win, but there is no doubt that he has under-achieved.