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Aug 10, 2011

From sublime talent to sullen spectator

The grander the stage, the greater the scope for embarrassment. Wembley has hosted humiliation after humiliation for Dimitar Berbatov, with almost every trip there a chance for fresh indignities. The lame penalty in the shootout against Everton and the glaring misses against Manchester City formed twin disappointments in FA Cup semi-finals.

At least, however, the Bulgarian was selected then. Come May's Champions League final, Manchester United's record signing failed to make the bench, demoted behind Michael Owen in the pecking order. For Sunday's Charity Shield, Javier Hernandez's absence seemed to offer an opportunity. Instead, he was limited to a brief cameo as Danny Welbeck, a veteran of two Premier League starts for United, was preferred.

It was a symbolic choice by Sir Alex Ferguson. Berbatov has rarely been the man for the big occasion, starting only 25 of 55 major matches in his three years at Old Trafford. At £30.75 million, he has been an expensive ornament, glumly decorating various benches and offering television directors the chance to capture images of him looking nonplussed. For this most idiosyncratic of enigmas, public snubs have become an occupational hazard, and for students of Ferguson's sometimes brutal management, the surprise may be that he lingers at United. Then again, Berbatov rarely did move quickly.

Cheap jibes aside, that may be part of the problem. Berbatov, as he said during United's pre-season tour, will not change his style of play, but the team is evolving. Welbeck's display in the Community Shield was encouraging rather than extraordinary, but it hinted at the direction United will take. Alongside a similarly lively Wayne Rooney and flanked by Nani and Ashley Young, both willing to swap flanks, this was a mobile front four, very capable of interchanging positions. Substitute the quicksilver Hernandez for Welbeck, or the energetic Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia on the wings and the system remains, the shared emphasis on pace and verve being intact.

Sunday's scheme sparked memories of the relationship between Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney in the 2007-8 season when fluidity reigned. That, too, was a forward line without a fixed point, before Berbatov arrived as the supposed fulcrum.

Instead, a full stop beckons. Should Paris St Germain firm up their interest with a bid, it is hard to see United rebuffing it. Berbatov has long been reluctant to leave Old Trafford for lesser destinations, but he has a Parisian's froideur (his Francophile lookalike Kristin Scott Thomas also specialises in haughty aloofness).

More to the point, Ferguson has a habit of getting his way; his discards tend to depart quickly. There is a sense that Berbatov's Champions League final downgrading had been planned: when the underused Owen was granted a year's extension, it appeared he was preparing to dispose of the Bulgarian and buying time in the search for a long-term alternative.

Should PSG sign him, it will heighten comparisons with Juan Sebastian Veron, who also moved on to join the nouveau riche (Chelsea in his case). The Argentine was another hugely costly signing who, rather than adding another dimension to United, merely slowed them down. Neither shared the urgency that has been imbued in Ferguson's other charges.

They are paradoxes, players of such evident class who proved an imperfect fit when surrounded by footballers of ample gifts. Few, Paul Scholes apart, could spray passes around with such authority as Veron; none, perhaps, has plucked a fast-travelling ball out of mid air with such languid ease as Berbatov. Both have become a lightning rod for criticism.

Both, too, have been defended defiantly by their manager. Yet it is not what Ferguson says as much as what he does. Besides revealing his many agendas, his public utterances tend to be notable for a reluctance to admit he was wrong. Signing Veron was a mistake and if Berbatov, the Golden Boot winner last season, does not quite belong in the same category, it is hard to brand him a success.

That makes the 30-year-old a rarity among Premier League top scorers. Yet the statistics lend a flattering look to his contribution. Apart from last September's breathtaking hat-trick against Liverpool and 87th and 90th minute goals against Chelsea, altering the scoreline but not the result, he has never scored in a marquee match for United (strikes against Tottenham, his former employers, come closest). His drought in Europe dates back to 2008. And of the 20 goals that enabled him, along with Tevez, to top the scoring charts last season, 16 came at Old Trafford.

Logic dictates that most players will score the majority of their goals at home, but not 80 percent of them; there are few less violent and more delicate footballers than Berbatov, but the accusation is that he is a flat-track bully.

Because while youngsters are granted more leeway, Manchester United players are judged in the defining games of their season. And having first failed to determine them, Berbatov is rarely even involved in them. A sublime talent is transformed into a sullen spectator.

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