He rose majestically for the ball placing his header out of reach of the despairing goalkeeper. United’s enigmatic number nine, full of grace and poise, grabbed victory for his team after his side was pegged back by their dogged opponent.
This could easily be a description of Zlatan Ibrahimović’s decisive strike against Leicester City but it’s actually an account of Dimitar Berbatov’s match-winning, hat trick sealing goal against Liverpool. The treble was one of Berbatov’s major highlights at Manchester United and in all truth the big Bulgarian should have found the Theatre of Dreams a fitting stage to show off his outrageous skills.
The refined tools were there at his disposal to become a United legend. The deft ball control that bordered on arrogance, the insouciant swagger and the cooler than cool attitude was a wonderfully potent cocktail that should have mixed perfectly with the spirit of Old Trafford, yet it wasn’t to be.
In hindsight his transfer in 2008 and subsequent debut pointed to the unintended chaos that the Bulgarian striker brought to Old Trafford. United hijacked Berbatov’s move to Manchester City with Sir Alex Ferguson picking up the striker at Manchester airport much to the chagrin of the noisy neighbours and Tottenham. That after the newly cash-rich City had agreed a fee with Spurs for the services of the Bulgarian striker.
He made his first start for United against Liverpool at Anfield and made an immediate impact setting up Carlos Tevez. However a dream debut it was not as the Scousers came from behind to defeat United and if anything it was a microcosm of Berbatov’s career at the Red Devils, a moment of quality wrapped up in layer of disappointment.
He was the classic square peg in a round hole, a languid artist surrounded by the dynamic tyros of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. He was the cool T-800 in a side that required the fluidity of a T-1000.
A cursory glance leads to the conclusion that Berbatov’s time at United was a victory of style over substance. That observation does come across as somewhat unfair as he did win two Premier League titles, a League cup medal, a pair of Community Shield triumphs and a World Club Cup Championship to boot. He also bagged a 20-goal haul in the league in his third season at United, a return that included hat tricks against Liverpool and Birmingham in addition to a five-goal pillaging of Blackburn.
Despite the numbers one can’t help talking about the Bulgarian without referring the to aesthetic beauty he brought to the football pitch. Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney at his peak could wow fans with their skill and power but Berbatov was one of the few players who could take a crowd’s breath away. Whether it was an outrageous piece of skill like his pirouette against West Ham, a controlling a difficult pass with nonchalant ease or arrogantly stroking the ball home the big striker with the touch of silk could create moments that would an indelible mark on those who were fortunate enough to witness them.
Old Trafford is a stage to celebrate success but it’s also a theatre to dazzle. Sir Matt Busby once said to a teenage Bobby Charlton “all those lads you see going into Trafford Park, they come to watch you on Saturday. You have to give them something they will enjoy”. Berbatov on his day could give the crowd something unique. Cristiano Ronaldo provided pure electricity, Roy Keane displayed sheer force of will but an on-song Berbatov was just pure poetry in motion. In the end though the moments of genius was too fleeting and Berbatov was moved in in favour of Robin van Persie.
For all the touches of magic there were too many failures for Ferguson to ignore and soon Berbatov was plying his trade at Craven Cottage before more fittingly plying his trade in the glamourous climes of Monaco where he scored a characteristic goal against Nice. It had all the trademarks of a Berba special, the casual approach, the touch of genius and the economy of effort to produce something so outrageous. Just like his overhead goal against Liverpool that sailed into the net via the underside of the bar the lob was peak Berbatov. Of course it could have just been a mishit lob but such is the quality of the Bulgarian the fact that there was a debate as to whether he meant it or not reflects his level of ability.
And maybe that’s why he inspired admiration and frustration in equal measure. He made the game look so simple and his body language was so languid that it lent to the perception of him being lazy and cool genius at the same time.
Whether it’s on the pitch or off it Berbatov is one of football’s few genuine artists, a silky purveyor of skill in a world that favours pace and power. In a sense it’s a great shame that footballers like him are few and far between, a throwback to swagger and style over the modern game’s more lauded qualities.
He’s an enigma of many talents; a classy footballer, artist, amateur journalist and so much more but at 35, Berbatov’s career is at a cross roads, he’s parted company with PAOK Salonika and is left to ponder whether to continue or hang up his boots.
Whatever the decision he always has memories of Old Trafford and the Manchester United faithful can cling on to the stylish if ultimately unfulfilled promise. In a sense Dimitar Berbatov was quintessentially United; hated, adored but never ignored.