This week it was Dimitar Berbatov’s birthday. Now 37 (could he still do a job?), the Bulgarian is one of my favourite Manchester United players. In 149 appearances he scored 57 goals, which isn’t an outrageous record. But that’s not why you watched Berbatov, you watched him for the aesthetic beauty. If swans could play football, they would play like Dimitar. He was so elegant and graceful, gliding around the field almost as if he didn’t touch the grass.
To mark his birthday, I thought it might be nice to indulge in some of his best moments in a Manchester United shirt. So transport yourself back to between the years of 2008 and 2012 and enjoy the footballing artiste that was Dimitar Berbatov.
1st September 2008: His transfer itself
It was one of the deals that probably spawned the current incarnation of Jim White. On deadline day, Berbatov seemed on his way to Manchester City. The story goes that he even went as far as flying to Manchester to meet the City executives, only for Sir Alex Ferguson to screech onto the runway and bundle him into a car.
Later in the evening, the Bulgarian was filmed walking through the hallowed halls of Old Trafford, waving to the excited fans outside. Once United had made their interest known, Berbatov apparently refused to speak to anyone else. City signed Robinho from Real Madrid, so they weren’t too fussed anyway. ‘He’s well good, inhe mate,’ a Manc man wearing an anorak and a bucket hat probably said. Robinho has recently been sentenced to nine years in prison for sexual assault.
29th October 2008: The turn vs West Ham
Now we turn to his actions on the field. Rather than start with a goal, we begin with an assist at Old Trafford for Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, it’s that turn that made James Collins have an existential crisis and began the balding process he is still enduring today.
Anderson receives the ball just inside the West Ham half and slots a through ball behind the defensive line. Berbatov chases the ball as it heads towards the goal line, haunted by the lumbering Collins, who is approaching the ball like a man checking if his recycling has been collected.
The Bulgarian then holds the ball up with his right foot, using the momentum of his sprint to twist around so he is facing his own goal. As Collins approaches, the Bulgarian delicately flicks the ball over the knee of the defender and glides into the penalty area. He then slips a pass to Ronaldo who flings himself at the ball to stab it home.
Collins is left to walk towards his fellow defenders, wondering if maybe he should have taken that cookery course when he was 16.
19th September 2010: His first hat trick for United just happens to be vs Liverpool
It’s quite surprising that Berbatov took two years to get a hat trick for United. When it came it was as much needed as it was deserved, felling Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool in a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. This was a big game on a personal level, as I actually watched it in the communal area of my student halls, in an attempt to bond with my housemates. I’m still a Manchester United fan but don’t talk to any of the people I watched the game with, so I guess we know how that turned out.
The first goal came just before half time, an outswinging Ryan Giggs corner missed by Jonny Evans, only for Berbatov to hook his neck behind the ball and divert it into the top right hand corner. Fernando Torres, who was starting his downward spiral that would end with his £50m move to Chelsea, meekly pawed at the Bulgarian’s shirt in a feeble attempt to stop him. The ball actually hits Konchesky’s hand on the way in but luckily the referee ignored this. Christ, Paul has done well to get a mention in this article.
Ah, the overhead kick. Nani is released down the United right, before standing up Konchesky (again?) and dropping in a high, curling cross towards Berbatov. The Bulgarian knocks the ball up off his thigh, high enough to give himself time to adjust his body below it. He then performs one of the laziest overhead kicks, falling towards the ground and hooking the ball over his shoulder. Reina doesn’t move as the ball soars past him and in off the bar. The arc of the ball as it leaves his boot is majestic, you couldn’t draw it better.
Some other stuff happens that means the game is at 2-2 by the time Berbatov completes his hat trick. O’Shea clips a ball in from the right towards the criminally unmarked Bulgarian, who rises in front of Glen Johnson and over the scrambling Jamie Carragher to head home. There’s not much better than a hat trick against Liverpool. In the communal area we were going mental. Almost as mental as Carl’s story about having sex with a ballerina that definitely happened, despite it happening when no one else was in the flat.
27th November 2010: Five goals vs Blackburn
United won this game 7-1, but no one remembers Park Ji Sung or Nani’s goals.This game was all about Berbatov. The five goals encapsulate the best parts of his game, his strength, dexterity, improvisation and skill. There’s even time for the slowest counter attacking goal, as if Berbatov was attempting to parody himself.
We start with a tap in. Nani swings in a right footed cross from United’s left wing, which Rooney nods on towards the Blackburn goal. Berbatov is being held by his marker, but the Bulgarian throws out his right peg to prod it home. Improvisation that Amy Poehler would be proud of.
His second comes from a truly idiotic backpass from the almost forgotten Pascal Chimbonda. Berbatov glides into the picture and onto the ball on the edge of the penalty area. He takes a touch, looks up to decide on the perfect part of the net to put it in, then chooses just to smash it home with reckless abandon.
Now to the goal we all remember. The move starts in United’s left back area when Berbatov flicks a backheeled pass to Evra. The Bulgarian decides to initiate a ‘quick’ counter attack, by jogging towards the Blackburn half, getting the ball back from the French left back on the half way line. Berbatov then finds Nani over on the other side of the pitch. The pass is beautiful, skimming the rain off the grass. Nani brings the ball inside then deeper into the box, holding it up and beating Chimbonda, forcing him to fall to the ground. All the while, Berbatov has been plodding forward. He finally throws his arms in the air to alert Nani to his presence in the area. The winger finds him and he strokes it home, securing a hat trick which he seemingly managed without breaking a sweat.
The fourth and fifth goals arrive due to ricochets in the penalty area. The first from a blocked Park shot that Samba fails to clear, the second from Berbatov’s own cross being diverted back into his path. On both occasions, the Bulgarian instinctively lashes it home. By this point in the game, he looks like he’s working to his own laws of physics, where friction no longer exists and time bends to his whim.
Sadly, Berbatov’s time at Manchester meekly petered out. Despite being United’s top scorer that season, Berbatov failed to make the starting eleven for the Champions League final in 2011. He then struggled to get into the first team the following season, finally leaving to have a lovely old time down at Fulham. Ultimately, the game moved on from Berbatov. United could no longer afford to have a striker who didn’t press the opponent’s defence.
We will always have the memories of the goals, the flicks and the languid beauty that was Dimitar Berbatov. As a tribute to the big man, we should all raise our arms slowly, bow our heads and trudge back to the centre circle.