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Sep 28, 2010

The Devil inside

He was written off as a £30.75 million flop whose price tag was as big as his mood swings, yet Dimitar Berbatov is rapidly emerging as Manchester United's biggest asset as they look to return to the Champions League top table.

With Wayne Rooney continuing to drown under the weight of his own self-induced stupidity, his much maligned scoring buddy looks ready to emerge as United's new talisman and is relishing his new found status in Sir Alex Ferguson's side.

The Bulgarian's army of critics had penned poisonous obituaries for Berbatov after his first two seasons at Old Trafford led many to believe he lacked the temperament to deal with the demands that go with playing for the true giant of English football. That notoriously relaxed demeanour of his made Berbatov an easy target for the sceptics until he burst out of his shell in the most glorious fashion imaginable over the last month.

Producing performances and goals that have won over his fiercest critics, Berbatov's brilliant hat-trick against Liverpool earlier this month will go down in Old Trafford folklore as one of the great performances, in a fixture that means more to United fans than any other.

As he reflects on his rocky road as a United forward, Berbatov admits his initial contributions were not up to scratch as he tried to get the better of his nerves.

"I was disappointed by my own performances at the start of my time at United and I didn't need to be told I could do better," Berbatov says. "It was frustrating that I was not pleasing the supporters and playing at my best, but things have started to change and this is so exciting for me.

"There are many great players at this club and you need to show you are good enough to compete with them. It means there is some pressure and this made me nervous to start with, but I won the Premier League in my first season at United, which was not a terrible outcome for a guy who played as badly as they said I did.

"I always say scoring goals is only part of my game. Making goals for others can be a big thrill and I believe I have done this in a lot of important moments at United. As long as my manager is happy with me, he is the only one who matters.

"It took time to understand how good this team is because everyone has such great movement and it's not just about one important player. Everyone is important at United and hopefully I'm showing what I can do for this team now. It's a privilege to play for this great club and the feeling I have in front of the Old Trafford crowd is amazing.

"Things have started well for me this season, but I want to have more great days like the one against Liverpool. I went home to see my family after that game with a smile on my face, but you do not have time to sit back and think about how great that moment was. The next day was the start of a new challenge, which is how it works at United."

There has never been any doubt about the talent of this maverick striker, with his sublime touch and occasion flashes of genius making his general indifference in United colours all the more frustrating for those wanting him to shed the inconsistency that has plagued his career at the club.

"Half the people seem to think I'm a good player and the rest don't like me, but my expectations and standards are more important than what others think," says Berbatov, speaking in a typically uninspired tone as he confronts the thorny issue of his languid on-pitch demeanour.

"Maybe the critics take exception because of the way I look on the pitch, but I'm a relaxed guy and will never change. Some say I'm lazy, but my manager at United is happy with me and I have more respect for him than anyone else. Those who say I don't care don't know me. Don't just look at my face and judge me, because the way I look is not always how I feel."

Berbatov credits his United revival to a fitness regime that saw him return from the summer break in top shape, with his pre-season performances suggesting he had discovered a new drive and determination to make the most of what may have been his final season at Old Trafford if he had not found his form.

Revealing he spent his summer of inactivity running for miles to improve his physical conditioning, he now says he "feels alive" on the pitch and "no longer suffers from the fatigue that was a problem at times in the past".

Berbatov's transformation may also have something to do with his decision to pull down the curtain on an international career that was often a burden he could have done without. Even though he set records galore with the national team, the criticism he attracts was never far away when he played for his country.

"I always said I wouldn't play international football when I got close to the age of 30 and my decision will not change," he says, even though new Bulgaria coach Lothar Matthaus is hopeful of persuading the national team's all-time record scorer to return to national duty.

"It was a great moment for me when I scored my 48th goal and broke Hristo Bonev's record with the national team last year. This was also the perfect moment for me to say that chapter had come to an end. Even though this wasn't an easy decision, it is one I am happy with.

"No matter how hard I try to perform in the Bulgaria shirt, I got insults for my performances. There were always people who were not happy with me when I played for Bulgaria, so I don't have to worry about this anymore." Happiness off the field may well be at the root of Berbatov's current burst of inspiration, with his long-term relationship with partner Elena and the arrival of daughter Dea last year giving his personal life a very different perspective.

The magnitude of fatherhood may well have helped to provide a sprinkling of perspective on his sporting woes and he now has his sights set on the biggest prize of them all. "I came to this club to win the Champions League and this is the trophy I want," he says.

The striker who has spent the last couple of years running scared of withering criticism must be relieved that his focus is, once again, on his qualities rather than his deficiencies. Class tends to rise to the top in the end.

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