By Paul Gardner
We've seen quite an array of descriptions attached to Dimitar Berbatov of Manchester United. Not easy to pin down, this guy. Positionally, for a start: A forward? A playmaker? A midfielder? A goalscorer? Maybe, at times, A Waste of Space?
The various adjectives with which he’s been labeled underline the bafflement: enigmatic, lethargic, artistic, languid, elegant, stylish, moody, and, yes, brilliant.
With Berbatov, in other words, you never quite know what you’re going to get. It could be an inept performance, it could be dazzling. No wonder the guy can’t hold down a regular place in the Man United lineup.
On Saturday we got the brilliant best of all the various Berbatov incarnations as he scored five times against a Blackburn Rovers defense that simply could not cope with his superb skill. To score five times in an EPL game is already a hell of an achievement, but there was an extra dimension to this quintet that is worth relishing.
Modern soccer is not exactly overflowing with goals, and one often laments at how many scoring opportunities seem to be wasted by poor finishing. Surely, it never used to be that way, did it? Maybe no, maybe yes. More than likely, with the game so much quicker, with defenses so much tighter, shots have to be hurried and inaccuracy is inevitable.
But not on Saturday. Berbatov put on an absolute master class of finishing. Each goal was scored with composure, with authority, with deadly accuracy.
To take the easy one first. This was Berbatov’s second goal, a gift goal if you like. A ghastly back pass by Blackburn defender Pascal Chimbonda went straight to Berbatov, who then closed in on goalkeeper Paul Robinson with what is usually described as “the easiest of tasks” to score. I suppose so -- though one has almost gotten used to seeing these “easy” opportunities blasted wide of the goal, or straight into the goalkeeper. Not this time, one light touch, then a crashing right foot shot into the roof of the net gave Berbatov his second goal.
His first had come only 72 seconds into the game when, with a defender draped all over him, he had side-footed Wayne Rooney’s flicked header into the net from six yards out.
And so to the third goal, just one minute into the second half -- a magnificent masterpiece from Berbatov, who started the move deep in his own half, neatly back-heeled the ball to Patrice Evra, got it back and then, from the halfway line swung a perfect long ball out to Nani on the right. This was wonderful soccer to watch -- as Nani controlled the ball instantly and cut into the Blackburn area, Berbatov was already approaching the 18-yard line. Some ball-trickery from Nani took him past Chimbonda before he pulled the ball back for Berbatov to sweep it into the net with his apparently infallible right foot.
In the 62nd minute, some dazzling inter-passing between Nani and Rafael set up Park Ji-Sung for a shot on goal -- the shot was blocked, the ball fell to Berbatov who, with amazing speed and coolness, took one touch to settle the ball, then smashed it into the net from 4 yards out.
Such was Berbatov’s scoring magic in this game, that his fifth goal arrived when he was clearly trying to pass the ball to Rooney. Anderson’s powerful run through midfield climaxed with a perfect pass to Berbatov who took the ball almost to the goal line before cutting it back for Rooney -- but the pass was blocked by Ryan Nelsen, the ball came back to Berbatov, who calmly netted from a very narrow angle.
In the 89th minute Berbatov nearly made it six -- which would have been an EPL record -- but his header was beaten out by the keeper Robinson.
This was as commanding, as majestic a display of pure goalscoring as I have seen in a long time -- really, I think, since Romario was at his incomparable best. I doubt whether anything like it has been seen in England since the days of Jimmy Greaves back in the 1960s.
I mention Romario and Greaves, because I want to make a more general point about Berbatov’s goal flourish. Neither Romario nor Greaves was massively built (Romario was a mere 5-foot-7). They could never, in a million years, have bullied or outmuscled or terrorized defenders with size and strength. They simply out-thought and outplayed them. Lightning quick instincts and action were at the root of their game ... followed by the devastating certainty of their scoring touch. Their goalscoring records are astonishing: in a 13-year career with Chelsea, AC Milan and Tottenham, Greaves scored 358 goals in 490 games, while Romario claims to have scored 1,000 goals in his career -- which may be an exaggeration, but the stats of 98 goals in 109 games for PSV Eindhoven, 34 in 46 games for Barcelona, and 55 in 70 games for Brazil tell you how good he was.
Berbatov is a bigger man -- some 6-2 -- but he is not in any way a physical player. In fact, one of the many criticisms of him is that he doesn’t “put himself about” enough. On Saturday he was playing against a team, Blackburn Rovers, that would be judged by most observers as rugged, a team with two large, no-nonsense central defenders, 6-1 Ryan Nelsen (formerly of D.C. United) and 6-4 Christopher Samba. They could do little, either singly or jointly, to halt the rampaging Berbatov.
A fact that is worth pondering, because it makes a mockery of the accepted coaching wisdom that if your opponents have massive center backs, your team will get nowhere without an equally massive center forward to do physical battle with them.
Another point worth considering goes back to the accusations that Berbatov is lazy. As it happens, none of this trio was a frantic chaser of the ball. The overt expressions of all-out effort -- the pumping arms, the gritted teeth, the pounding legs, the heaving chest -- none of these things were to be seen with Greaves or Romario, nor with Berbatov. On his magnificent third goal, Berbatov started just outside his own penalty area -- the ball was passed swiftly upfield, and as Nani cut into the Blackburn penalty area, Berbatov was approaching the 18-yard line, not exactly strolling, but certainly not sprinting.
From Berbatov, then, an afternoon on which all those definitions and adjectives I mentioned earlier never got beyond what they are, just words. What spoke loudest was the compelling magic of Berbatov’s lesson not only in the art of goalscoring, but in the secrets and subtleties of smooth, intelligent movement on a soccer field.