Berbatov takes his chance
To think Michael Owen was designated the role of super-sub at Old Trafford this season. With 20 minutes gone, Manchester United's No. 7 wandered off, with a groin injury apparently aggravated by anonymity, and their No. 9 arrived. Summoned from the bench, Dimitar Berbatov strolled on to illuminate a drizzly night in Manchester. United, as they had done a decade before on a rather more notable occasion, came from behind to defeat German opposition, a striking substitute again contributed.
The irony was that, having provided precision with his distribution throughout, the decider came in part from a pass Berbatov misplaced. Having met Wayne Rooney's cross and wandered away from a couple of defenders, he laid the ball back to Ryan Giggs. It was over-hit, however, forcing the winger to set up Michael Carrick. His curler found the top corner. So a former Tottenham player did prove the matchwinner, but the midfielder was the less likely candidate of the two on display.
Berbatov had come on with a sense of entitlement. This was his stage, the platform to display those deft, dazzling skills that can seem more suited to the continental game than its rougher English sibling. That could be said, too, of Eric Cantona, to whom Berbatov has been compared, though the Frenchman flourished more in the Premier than the Champions League.
The Bulgarian was confined to cameos, of 24 minutes apiece, in the final and both legs of the semi-final last season. This was a chance to reassert himself in Europe. A player who has rarely appeared indispensable in his 13 months in Manchester has rarely seemed more important than in the 20 minutes that preceded his introduction. Suddenly a team was lent an outlet, a unit provided with a shape and the Wolfsburg defence provided with a quandary: Berbatov's idiosyncracies can baffle onlookers and opponents alike.
Whatever the ProZone graphs show, there are times when the ball appears to gravitate towards him, rather than vice-versa. There were plenty such in this game: five minutes after his arrival, an inventive backheel sent Antonio Valencia through, only for the Ecuadorian to shoot wide. After a further five minutes, Berbatov threaded the ball through a crowded Wolfsburg defence for Carrick, whose low shot was blocked by Diego Benaglio.
The element of artistry was evident when he and Valencia traded backheels before Rooney shot straight at the goalkeeper, the capacity to create became apparent in the closing stages with a header perfectly guided into Anderson's path. It can seem a paradox to meander with purpose, but this was an occasion when Berbatov did just that.
The flaw in an otherwise first-rate performance was a typical one: he didn't score. Two goals this season, delivered against Wigan and Stoke, is a comparatively meagre return. Fourteen was an unexceptional first season.
Nevertheless United have now managed eight successive wins without one of their strikers proving prolific and they satisfied their manager. "I think we had a very good team performance tonight," said Ferguson. "Michael [Carrick] and Anderson in centre midfield had particularly good games."
As they did against Arsenal and Tottenham, United conceded first and won and the Scot added: "One thing they're good at is that they never give in. No matter what the score is, they keep on playing and they got their reward."
Wolfsburg briefly appeared on course for theirs. Their forceful, physical strikers provided a threat and one of them earned a lead when Makoto Hasebe chipped a cross to the back post that Edin Dzeko met with a firm header.
Their advantage only lasted three minutes when a free-kick took a sizeable deflection off Christian Gentner to provide Giggs with his 150th United goal, another landmark in a career that was scarcely short of them.
Ferguson added: "The amazing thing is he shows such incredible youthfulness; it's as though he's started his career for the club. You can praise him to the high heavens because he doesn't get affected by it."
Giggs has become accustomed to praise. Berbatov is a comparative stranger to it, but it was a night when both merited the plaudits.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Dimitar Berbatov - There are some matches when it is immediately obvious why Ferguson pursued the Bulgarian for so long and broke the club's transfer record to sign him. This was one of them.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Owen has been ruled out for two or three weeks, according to Ferguson, but the major concern should be their defensive difficulties. Already booked, Nemanja Vidic could have collected another caution while it wasn't Rio Ferdinand's most convincing display. More encouragingly, United excelled going forward once Berbatov replaced Owen.
WOLFSBURG VERDICT: Having already won against CSKA, the German champions have back-to-back games against Besiktas next which should put them in position to qualify with United. After mustering a mere 71 goals last season, the strike duo of Dzeko and Grafite suggested they will continue to score while the playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic exerted an influence.
TAKING THE MICHAEL: Carrick's performance represented a welcome return to form for a player who had been in danger of slipping down the pecking order. The competitive nature of football dictates that, for one player's star to rise, another's has to wane. With the ascent of Darren Fletcher and the resurgence of Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves' return to training, Carrick's position appeared endangered. As it was he dovetailed beautifully with Anderson. While the Brazilian offers more dynamism, the Englishman got into the penalty area more often than usual.