Can do better. It is a phrase that will be applied to many teams in their end-of-season inquest. Not the potential quadruple winners Manchester United, however, unless the man under scrutiny is their record signing.
Self-analysis can be a painful process, but Dimitar Berbatov's verdict on his own campaign suggests he concurs with some of his critics. "Of course I can do a lot better," said the £30.75 million striker. As expensive United forwards go, he is neither Garry Birtles nor Ruud van Nistelrooy, neither embarrassed by nor explosive in his initial impact; a total of 14 goals is unremarkable and his likely station on the bench for the Champions League final suggests even Sir Alex Ferguson questions his credentials.
The Bulgarian delivers a balanced assessment of his first campaign in Manchester, while indicating that despite the similarities with another creator of imperious arrogance, he doesn't share Ferguson's conception of him as the new Eric Cantona. "When people see my name they see goals. I need to score more goals even though I don't play in my usual position."
His total of 10 Premier League assists meant only Robin van Persie proved more creative. It brought some consolation to Berbatov. "I was reading the paper and I saw that the most useful guy for the team was me. It made me feel good. I didn't score as many goals as I wanted to and people are maybe a little disappointed with that, but I made the most assists and I feel good."
That is not the popular perception of Berbatov, but he is accustomed to questions about his seemingly glum demeanour. "It would be stupid if I was going to laugh all the time. I don't always smile but I smile inside," he said.
Together with a lack of conspicuous commitment, it is a reason he can polarise opinion. When he plucks the ball out of the sky with enviable ease, as he did to set up Carlos Tevez's Manchester derby goal, the casual brilliance can stun. Yet when a nonchalant penalty produces a simple save, as his did for Everton's Tim Howard in the FA Cup semi-final shootout, the relaxed approach is deemed misguided.
"When someone has great qualities sometimes they don't have to put much effort into things," said the 28-year-old. "Sometimes the things I do look effortless but it's not like that. It's very difficult, but because of my style of play I make it look easy."
Others make it look tougher, and are appreciated all the more for it. Much as Ferguson insists that the statistics prove Berbatov is as active as his other forwards, the likelihood is that the more obvious industry of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ji-sung Park will earn them selection against Barcelona. "The only person who can tell me if I need to change is the boss," said Berbatov, aware that his detractors in the stands prefer the permanently sweat-soaked Tevez. "If the boss says, 'Berba...'".
A status as the costliest player in the history of one of the world's biggest clubs confers both status and stress, even for one who looks as laidback as Berbatov. "There is always pressure," he added. "I am a realistic type of guy. 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."
Thus far, Ferguson's expectations of Berbatov have included knitting moves together and operating as the attacking pivot. He explained: "When I get the ball the players need to start running and then I just feed them with the ball." A play-making role suggested he would be an integral part of the team. Instead, Berbatov has become subject to the rotation policy and began both legs of the semi-final against Arsenal on the bench.
He is aware, too, that his colleagues have a greater pedigree. "I am part of this team but I don't feel fully part of it because I didn't win the Champions League," he admitted. Whereas his team-mates could celebrate in Moscow last year, Berbatov's only previous final occurred in Glasgow seven years ago. The 21-year-old substitute was part of the Bayer Leverkusen side defeated by Zinedine Zidane's exquisite volley. "Maybe this final will be a second chance for me," said Berbatov, who moved to the Bundesliga from CSKA Sofia. "Not many players go to two Champions League finals."
Matches of this magnitude can determine careers. Thus far, Berbatov's time at Old Trafford may have been defined by the FA Cup semi-final. Howard's save, coupled with the subsequent opprobrium, means that the Bulgarian is unsure if he will volunteer if a second successive Champions League final goes to penalties.
"It hurt a lot," he added. "I am not sure I am going to do that. It's very difficult decision. Obviously I am the new guy in the team. When you make a mistake people sometimes go straight for the new guy."
If, by his own admission, the new guy can do better, Rome represents the ideal place to start and the perfect chance to convince his vocal band of doubters. Mistaken on occasions and misunderstood much of the time, Dimitar Berbatov cannot afford another miss in the Champions League final.
It would be stupid if I was going to laugh all the time. I don't always smile but I smile inside.
||— Dimitar Berbatov