Vilified and vulnerable, it has been a difficult first season for Dimitar Berbatov at Manchester United. In a campaign in which their achievements have been unrivalled, it would seem churlish to highlight the negatives. But the disappointment has been vocal about the Bulgarian striker's contribution.
Bought on deadline day last August for £30.75million (Dh176m) from Tottenham Hotspur, he has admittedly failed to live up to expectations and has become increasingly unpopular, particularly due to the affection the club's supporters have for his frontline rival Carlos Tevez. The charismatic Argentine is expected to leave when his two-year loan ends this month; tomorrow's Champions League final could be his farewell.
Many of the fans feel that Tevez should continue his United love affair, with Berbatov shown the exit door. Their contrasting styles do not favour the latter, whose goal tally of 14 is one less than his counterpart. Tevez is rampaging and spectacular, while Berbatov's cool demeanour and seemingly casual approach - highlighted by a weak missed penalty in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Everton - creates an apparently uncaring attitude.
It is something he rejects. Sir Alex Ferguson's belief is that Berbatov's ability allows him to make things look easy, in the manner of Eric Cantona, the Frenchman whose finesse helped him become an Old Trafford legend. "You know when someone has great qualities, sometimes they don't have to put much effort into things," says Berbatov. "Sometimes the things I do look effortless, but it's not like that. It's very difficult, but because of my style of play maybe I make it look easy.
"I didn't score as many goals as I wanted and people are maybe a little disappointed with that, but I always put the team first. "For me, it's better for the team to be champions with me scoring the least goals than me scoring 100 and we finish sixth. I don't see the point of that. "The only person who can tell me if I need to change is the boss. If I have to say something personal about my season, then of course I can do a lot better, but in the end it's only important what the boss is going to say to me, if he is happy or not. If he says he is not then I need to work to improve so I can be better next season."
Berbatov adds: "I know one million people are going to like me and one million are not. There is always pressure. I am realistic and I am my biggest critic. "I know that when they pay a lot of money for a player the expectation will be higher, even sometimes it's ridiculous. "I am used to that and I know everyone is expecting even more from me. I know what I did wrong [with the penalty against Everton], but I try to get over things like that.
"It's very difficult when you make a mistake and everyone is trying to attack you. It hurt a lot, but you try to be strong. "I don't like to show my emotions, but the toughest part is when people, even before they know you, say, 'he's not good'. "It's always painful to listen to that. Maybe it motivates you to show them that they are not right. I have tried to do that all my life. Everyone can think whatever they want, but I will keep on fighting and I hope when I finish in football I'll be happy with what I've achieved."
A Premier League winners' medal has cheered Berbatov, providing the success he craved when he left White Hart Lane and fulfilling some of the dreams he held as a child honing his skills with a basketball in the former mining town of Blagoevgrad. But he does not feel fully settled in to Ferguson's team just yet. That will only come if they beat Barcelona tomorrow. "I am part of this team, but I don't feel fully part of it because I didn't win the Champions League," he said. "That's a little bit painful. I was jealous when the guys won last year because they were lifting every cup in football. I thought, 'I just want to be part of this team and feel what it is to lift the cup'.
"If we can do that again this year, with me in the team, it will mean so much. Then I will feel fully part of the team." Berbatov experienced the pain of losing a final to Spanish opposition in 2002 with a Zinedine Zidane volley giving Real Madrid a 2-1 win over his former club Bayer Leverkusen. He came off the bench that night and was denied a late leveller by a save from Iker Casillas. "This memory is haunting me," added Berbatov. "If I can make it right this time it will be good."
He always hoped for such a second chance and being a hero in Rome may afford him the same with the United faithful. firstname.lastname@example.org