x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Berbatov's day of destiny for Man Utd

The Bulgarian has not made a huge impact yet at Old Trafford - but now he has to deliver in the absence of Wayne Rooney.

Dimitar Berbatov celebrates scoring in a Premier League match against Chelsea - who visit Old Trafford today.
Dimitar Berbatov celebrates scoring in a Premier League match against Chelsea - who visit Old Trafford today.

Team game as it is, football rarely permits all its participants an equitable share of the spotlight. Sometimes one star glitters so radiantly that others become obscured. That has been the fate of much of the Manchester United side this season, as Wayne Rooney's brilliance has deflected attention away from his colleagues.

With United deprived of their 35-goal striker, the focus turns to another forward as Chelsea visit Old Trafford today. Dimitar Berbatov's has an unenviable task: to ensure Rooney is not missed; to lead the line alone; perhaps to decide the destination of the Premier League title. Catapulted from the role of bit-part player to that of pivotal performer, his is a hefty burden on slight shoulders.

It is the day, perhaps, to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether Sir Alex Ferguson was wise to make Berbatov Manchester United's record signing 19 months ago. The Bulgarian's £30.75 million (Dh173m) price tag alone means that he was bought to influence games of this magnitude. Instead, he has rarely started them. Rendered redundant by Rooney's superlative form and the sense he is a luxury rather than a necessity, Berbatov started in only one of United's matches against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool this season.

As that was the 2-0 defeat at Anfield, it is hardly to his credit. He has been selected from the start for only six Champions League games in his time at Old Trafford and has mustered a solitary goal, in a match that had already been won, against another member of the Big Four. His recent masterpieces of languid control and nonchalant assurance have come against Bolton and Fulham. The challenge is to replicate such performances against Chelsea and then Bayern Munich; to make Rooney's convalescence from an ankle injury easier, and to banish one unwanted comparison. Ferguson was fiercely defensive of Juan Sebastian Veron, a similarly expensive recruit who decorated games without determining them.

Now he has given another player of delicate skill an endorsement. "His form has come great at the right time," the Scot said. "It's always hard to leave a player of his quality out of important games but we went with the tried-and-tested one striker and three central midfield players on Tuesday night [in Munich]. Now we'll have Berbatov in the team." Rooney, the manager confirmed yesterday, will be out for two to three weeks. Enough to alter the equation in the title race, perhaps, but not Ferguson's demands. "We have got the wherewithal, the determination and the ability to win these important games," he added.

"I don't think a draw is a good result, not at home. We have to try and win." Arsenal's presence in the race means this may not be a title decider, but the loser will have little leeway. A renascent Chelsea, scorers of 12 goals in two games, are very much back in contention. "We are hungry, hungry, hungry to win. Now is the time to win [the title]," said Carlo Ancelotti. "It will be an important game. That game doesn't decide the winner but the team that will win that game will have a good chance to win the title.

"Pressure is normal, but pressure is life. When you have adrenalin in your body, that is a good thing." Chelsea have renewed momentum. For United, defeat to Bayern Munich came at a huge cost. The absence of Rooney at a critical stage of the season has been compounded by evidence of the debilitating effect of age on Gary Neville and Paul Scholes and the loss of an aura of relentless ruthlessness.

If Chelsea can borrow Bayern's gameplan, if they have the fitness to execute such an effective pressing game, with Didier Drogba passed fit to try to terrorise United again, a damaging week could get worse. Minus their main man, their other premier players have a greater responsibility: for Darren Fletcher, to negate Frank Lampard and continue his stellar record in major matches; for Nemanja Vidic, to prevent Drogba from rampaging; for Patrice Evra, to make amends for his late mistake in Munich; for Ryan Giggs, to reproduce his brilliant display against Chelsea last season.

And, most crucially, for Dimitar Berbatov to prevent wistful thoughts turning to the player sitting in the stands. sports@thenational.ae Manchester Utd v Chelsea, 3.45pm, Showsports 1 & 2