Dimitar Berbatov was just one of a handful of players involved in big money transfers during the summer of 2008. Chelsea spent £16.2M on full-back Jose Bosingwa, Manchester City stunned the football world with the £32.5M signing of Robinho and Liverpool splashed out £20M on Robbie Keane. Looking back, it could be regarded as a summer of wasted money.

Berbatov cost Manchester United around a whopping £30M when he left White Hart Lane for Old Trafford and his failures for the champions have arguably been the most eyebrow-raising of the lot. He was supposed to be Eric Cantona-esque, influence big games and become an Old Trafford legend. He was bought to produce jaw-dropping pieces of skill and be among the league’s leading scorers. So far, he has fallen well short of those expectations.

Initial criticism was harsh at times as Berbatov struggled to fit in at United alongside talents like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. He scored the odd important goal but his contributions were far from consistent. The popular school of thought says that any great forward could thrive at Old Trafford with the world class supply lines and the sheer quantity of goal-scoring chances that are laid on. But Berbatov, like Keane at Anfield and Robinho at Eastlands, never looked a good fit.

Watching Berbatov 18 months later, those rash verdicts now look spot on. If anything, he has gone backwards since joining United. The Bulgarian is low on confidence, still refusing to put in the kind of work rate that team-mates like Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher give so willingly week in, week out and rarely a threat in front of goal.

Nothing could have rammed this point home more emphatically than the performances of Carlos Tevez – the striker United let go last summer – in both legs of the recent Carling Cup semi-final. Full of energy and commitment, Tevez not only led the City attack but he found the net too. Meanwhile, Berbatov played no part in either game. If reports are to be believed, Tevez would have cost a fortune if Sir Alex Ferguson had signed him permanently last summer but the little Argentine would surely have contributed more to United’s title bid this season than Berbatov.

Rooney, as Alan Shearer rightly pointed out last week, is carrying a hefty load for United at the moment. And the England man has done Ferguson proud, netting four against Hull and the dramatic winner against City. And that was even before his latest stylish showing against Arsenal. Berbatov, on the other hand, has been a passenger again this season and his highlights could be captured in a 10-second film clip.
Over the years, Ferguson has preferred to build his teams to play 4-4-2, often boasting four top class strikers in his squad – just over a decade ago, he had Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at his disposal. But Berbatov’s lacklustre displays – combined with Michael Owen’s up and down form and fitness – have forced Sir Alex to abandon that principle. At the Emirates against Arsenal, United once again reverted to 4-5-1, leaving Rooney to spearhead the attack with Nani and Ji-Sung Park offering the width and Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes supporting from midfield. The result? A dominant 3-1 victory – and the scoreline probably does not do justice to the quality of the performance from Ferguson’s side. Berbatov, the £30M man, was only involved as a late substitute with the points already in the bag.

Of course, the United boss is not the only Premier League manager ruing his transfer dealings in the summer of 2008. Rafael Benitez must still be scratching his head over the Keane saga and the Robinho experiment hardly sat well with Mark Hughes. But, having missed out on Karim Benzema in the summer and with a swoop for David Villa unlikely, Ferguson is seemingly stuck with his current options in attack.
Clearly those options are not bad, especially as Rooney is in the form of his life at the moment, but they might not be good enough to retain the title this year. Chelsea are flying and The Gunners, despite their humbling loss to Ferguson’s men, will not be throwing in the towel just yet. With so much pressure already weighing on Rooney’s shoulders, it is now or never time for Berbatov. If the Bulgarian does not up his game and rediscover traces of his Tottenham form, he will continue to be one of Ferguson’s costliest mistakes of recent times.


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