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Jan 5, 2009

Enigmatic genius or waste of money?

Dimitar Berbatov's arrival at Manchester United may have created more problems than it solved.

Improving on a Premier League and Champions League winning season was always going to be a tough ask for manager Sir Alex Ferguson and his solution was to finally snare the long-term target he believed would take his side onto the next level. By splashing out £30.75m to secure the services of the Bulgarian, he put plenty of eggs in the 'Berba' basket and had every right to expect plenty in return.

On occasion, Ferguson must have believed his investment was worth while as Berbatov has shown the odd flash of genius in his first few months as United's No.9, yet the goals and guile he was hired to inject have only come in fleeting bursts. Even though his magic moments have been hugely memorable, true champions deliver more often than the moody Bulgarian has managed so far.

When you throw into the mix the reality that Berbatov's purchase means there may not be enough money to fund Carlos Tevez's permanent stay at Old Trafford, you have to wonder whether the three Premier League goals United's enigmatic forward has contributed so far justifies his presence at the club.

Would United fans prefer to see Tevez in their side for years to come or Berbatov? You suspect most would throw their weight behind the hugely popular Argentine terrier, who is currently pondering his future as he appears to have been nudged down to fourth choice hit-man in Ferguson's star-studded striking line-up.

Only this week, Ferguson insisted Wayne Rooney will be playing a more central role in his side from now on and with the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo unhappy to be employed solely as a winger, finding a place for Berbatov is a dilemma United's legendary manager has yet to solve.

The United chief eased selection dilemma for Sunday's FA Cup third round tie at St Mary's Stadium by leaving his fabled three forwards from last season's glories on the sidelines and he left it to Berbatov to take centre stage against a team whose defensive record has been woeful this season.

Handed plenty of responsibility as he started alongside novice youngster Danny Welbeck in a strong United line-up, he was given the chance to show he was worthy of the shirt on his back and yet he failed to convince once again.

It may sound a little curious to compare him to tennis legend Roger Federer, yet as he glided around the lush St Mary's Stadium turn, flicking his hair aside a little like the Swiss ace tends to do, he looked like a man keen to put on a personal show rather than help his team succeed. Berbatov refuses to do the simple when the eye-catching is an option.

The occasional fancy flick and brilliant control of the ball was complimented by a determination to dip back to his own half way line as he tried to influence the play, yet his efforts were overshadowed by Welbeck as he opened the scoring after some shoddy Saints defending from a corner after 20 minutes.

If you were judging a player from his body language, Berbatov would not score highly as his each and every false move is greeted by childish arm waving and hunched shoulders. However, United cannot grumble with this flaw in his make-up as he has always specialised in the moody look.

The trouble for Berbatov may be that while rare brilliance was celebrated at previous club Tottenham, where mediocrity is expected and willingly accepted, more frequent contributions are demanded at a massive club like United.

When you are challenging for four major trophies in the second half of the season, there is no time to wait for a player to make a difference and as Welbeck so nearly added a second for United in the final moments of the first half, it was clear that the senior striker was playing second fiddle to his novice sidekick.

This may not have been the right game to judge Berbatov's impact, but there will come a time when he needs to justify his hype. Top players never looked as if they are uninterested in any game they play, but the Bulgarian seemed decidedly under-motivated in his first game of 2009.

So often compared to United icon Eric Cantona, Berbatov is yet to prove he has the ability to turn games when the pressure is on and even though the range of his vision became more impressive once Rooney was introduced from the bench, this was not a vintage display.

Few doubt he has the quality to play for United and he may well establish himself as an Old Trafford great in a different era, yet many believe United are at their best when the dream team of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney play together.

It may be that Berbatov didn't feel the need to shed any sweat against a poor Southampton side.

Maybe a meeting with former club Tottenham will stir Berbatov's fires a little more in round four. On this day, you just felt the need to give this obviously classy footballer a good shake.

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