Allen Hamilton

When Sir Alex Ferguson pictured how his Manchester United team might be strengthened by the addition of Dimitar Berbatov back in the summer of 2008, the vision probably resembled some of the Bulgarian’s displays this season. United have endured two frustrating campaigns from Berbatov, but his third looks like being the charm.

The Bulgarian has not embraced the spotlight at Old Trafford as many thought he would, drifting along in the shadow of first Cristiano Ronaldo and then Wayne Rooney. Berbatov has had his critics for a perceived lack of effort and also a lack of goals, but the early signs suggest that the 2010/11 season will be all about the forward.

From the start of the summer when he shone for United on the club’s North American tour, the striker has looked a revitalised force. In Toronto against Celtic, his performance convinced locals that he must be United’s biggest talent. His classy finish in the Community Shield against Chelsea was another indicator that his confidence was back.

While many players spent the summer in South Africa at the World Cup, Berbatov was able to recharge his batteries and ensure he was in peak condition for the new campaign. Though he would have preferred to experience the thrill of the tournament, he instead headed to the gym.

And it has proved a huge benefit for United. Berbatov has scored in four of the first five league games, including a sweetly-struck effort at Everton. He then took his tally to six with the sublime hat-trick against Liverpool. United-Liverpool fixtures have been cautious and tight in previous years, but Berbatov’s clinical finishing changed all that as he became the first United player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool since 1946. It was also his first hat-trick for the club.


He is not known for his heading ability yet twice beat the Liverpool defence to crosses, including a towering rise above Jamie Carragher for the winner. Sandwiched between those headers was the type of technical skill that sets the Bulgarian apart from so many other strikers. A bicycle kick was executed to perfection, leaving Pepe Reina with no chance – and for perhaps the first time since 2008, Berbatov looked fully comfortable in a United shirt. It was an Eric Cantona-esque moment and Old Trafford embraced every second.

Berbatov’s bright start to the season is in stark contrast to Rooney’s struggles on and off the pitch. And it will pain Ferguson that Berbatov’s emergence has coincided with Rooney’s slump. Against Liverpool, the England man again looked short of his best and spent more time barking at referee Howard Webb than he did threatening the visitors’ defence. Meanwhile, Berbatov played the role of saviour, riding to the rescue when Sir Alex Ferguson’s men had squandered a two goal lead. In the space of six months, it almost appears as if Berbatov and Rooney have seen their positions reversed.
The Bulgarian’s body language is now akin to that of a man who has finally passed his driving test. For two seasons, Berbatov knew that he was good enough, he put in the practise and those around him believed he was ready. But when it came to the crunch, he repeatedly failed the big test. Now, he has cracked the code and the burden of expectation has been lifted somewhat.

And Ferguson admitted his delight that Berbatov was proving the doubters wrong this season. He said: “There was a lot of criticism of him last season from the media – it happens when we buy someone for a lot of money, that’s the way of the world.

"But this season he has started off in the right fashion. He was good in pre-season and on tour and has carried it on. There has never been any doubt about the quality of the man."

As the joint top scorer in the league – level with Chelsea’s Florent Malouda – Berbatov has been as impressive as anyone over the first six weeks of the season. And watching him against Liverpool, it was impossible to believe that his performances were so lacklustre that he failed to make the starting line-up for the Champions League final in 2009. But this Berbatov is a new and improved version – revitalised and hungry for silverware.

With Chelsea storming along in top spot and Rooney out of sorts, Ferguson has plenty on his mind – so Berbatov has picked the right time to raise his game.