Wednesday, September 22, 2010

From Flop to Top

STOP PRESS: Just a very quick note to send my heartfelt commiserations to Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City fans on their clubs early exits from the Carling Cup
It’s been a long while since my last posting. Much has happened in the sporting world over the past couple of months including:

• The World Cup, which has come and sadly gone – overall not as exciting as Germany 06...but I still miss it
• LeBron James has made his Decision, taking his talents to South Beach, Florida
• The Parramatta Eels have tanked another NRL season (I’m still waiting for the Dragons to self asphyxiate)
• Spain are on their way to becoming the number one sporting nation in the world. Football world champions, Tour De France champion (Alberto Contador), French Open, US Open and Wimbledon champion (Rafa Nadal), guaranteed Moto GP champion (either Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa will take out the title), potentially – although unlikely – F1 champions (Fernando Alonso), current European basketball champions, and arguably the best football club team in the world in Barcelona. Not a bad record that!!! Where do I sign up for Spanish citizenship?
• The United State has restored order in world basketball by winning the World Championships for the first time since 1994
• The Pakistani cricket team has been exposed as being a bunch of corrupt, cheating b#stards – no surprise there
• The Commonwealth Games in Delhi look like being a complete disaster – again, no surprises (especially if you’ve had any exposure to the bureaucracy that is the sub-continent)
• The AFL is looking forward to yet another all Melbourne final when Collingwood face up against St. Kilda
• And most recently Serbia defeated the Czech Republic to move into their first Davis Cup Final. Napred Srbija!!!

Despite all of these wonderful Infarkt related sporting moments I haven’t been inspired to put the proverbial pen to paper. That was until Dimitar Berbatov became the first Manchester United player to score a hat trick against Liverpool (aka the Scumbags from Scouser-Land) in 64 years while leading Man U to a thoroughly deserved 3-2 victory over their most bitter rivals.

POLARISING FIGURE

Dimitar Berbatov might be one of the most polarising figures in the history of Manchester United Football Club. There are fans who will swear blind that he’s a useless, lazy sod who spends most of his time on the field drifting in and out of consciousness. Others, me included, feel that he’s one of the most naturally gifted footballers currently playing the great game, and despite his perceive lack of urgency and languid style, has the capacity for real genius. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two polar extremes, with his performances doing nothing to dissuade either camp from pressing their beliefs.

USELESS LAZY SOD

After delivering successive 23 goal (along with double digit assists) seasons for Spurs, Berba joined Man U for a club record £30.75 million in 2008. Much was expected from the player who was dubbed by no less than Arsene Wenger in his debut Premier League season as the new Thierry Henry (this is meant to be a compliment). Unfortunately Berba’s high price tag was not matched by high energy performances. In the fiery cauldron of Old Trafford, where aggression, passion and enthusiasm inspire the Stretford End as much as a back heel or step over, Berba cut a solitary figure. He was the antithesis of recent crowd favourites such as Bryan Robson, Sparky Hughes, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Gabriel Heinze, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. Even the misfiring Diego Forlan was admired and applauded for his perpetual motion, despite his inability to hit the back of the net (note – the fact that Forlan is now one of the most lethal goal scorers in the game is a ridiculous joke. Murphy and his stupid laws can go f#ck themselves).
SIDEBAR: MY TAKE ON TEVEZ
In a very short period of time Carlos Tevez became an Old Trafford hero. While he managed to score the occasional spectacular goal, it was his limitless energy, and capacity to chase without the ball at his feet, that won over the Red Devil fans. Personally I thought (and still think) that he’s vastly overrated. While I appreciate his commitment and passion, he plays like a bulldog on speed. His tactic of running though defenders works one in every ten tries. That leaves 90% of the time that he loses possession in good attacking areas because he just kicks the ball forward and tries to burrow his way into a gap (it’s a fact…I made it up). He lacks vision, his passing is limited, and his shot – while extremely powerful – is horribly inaccurate. I will take Rooney, Berba, Forlan, Pancev, Messi, Villa, Torres, and Tome Divljak over Tevez any day of the week…twice on Sunday’s. Plus, he has to be one of the ugliest men to play the beautiful game.


I digress.


Despite his phenomenal first touch and vision, Berba’s lack of goal return, coupled with his oily slicked hair, dropped shoulders, half closed eyes and jogging style (similar to that of a basketballer called 'The Juggernaut') made him an easy target for criticism. While Carlos Tevez was being ‘forced’ out of the club, Berba was being protected by Sir Alex, without delivering on his reputation or price tag. This did nothing to win him any fans.


By the end of his second season, even Sir Alex of Ferguson seemed to have lost faith, benching Berba for some of the clubs biggest games at the back end of the season. With Wayne Rooney leading the line single handed on most nights, rumours abound that Berba would be swiftly move out of the Theatre of Dreams.


Berba seemed consigned to follow in the footsteps of a plethora of footballing giants from the Balkans, such as Il Genio Dejan Savicevic. A phenomenally talented player, but without the required ticker and consistency to translate that into something more meaningful than the occasional party trick or wow moment. Like his amazing goal in the European Cup final in 1994


REAL GENIUS


On the flip side to Berba’s lack of hustle, bustle and (supposedly) heart are those moments when you see that he can do something with the ball at his feet that only a handful of others on the planet can replicate.


Physically Berbatov is the prototypical footballer. A towering and powerful physique coupled with deceptive quickness, he has all the physical attributes to strike fear into the most hardened of central defenders. He can play deep in the box and act as a target man, holding the ball up while support players arrive. Or he can drop into midfield and play as the link man, with a gift for a defence splitting pass that few midfielders can claim.


Then there is his first touch. There a few footballers right now who have the same ability to stop the ball on a dime, while running at pace, regardless of what angle the ball is coming from. Watch this move that had the poor West Ham defender reaching for a pie and chips from the front row of the crowd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=as5ELmq3ma4. Simply breathtaking.
These are the moments that have fans gasping for more, and believing that despite Cantona’s aura, Rooney’s power, Ronaldo’s trickery, Giggs’ chest hair, and Keane’s ability to inflict serious bodily harm on anyone...Berbatov might be the best footballer of the Sir Alex era.


Check out this compilation of goals from his Spurs days. The top four are spectacular. Each goal is different in execution, and shows that Berba has the full range of skills in his arsenal. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rt63U66NOaY


TURNING THE CORNER

After finishing the 2009/10 season under a cloud of disappointing performances and deserved criticism, it was widely anticipated that Sir Alex had enough of waiting for the real Berbatov to announce himself, and would cut his losses and ship the Bulgar out. Whether he couldn’t find a buyer, or more likely, didn’t have the funds for an adequate replacement, he decided to keep him on. And in an (albeit) very short period of time, Berba has repaid him tenfold.

Berbatov’s hot start to the season to date reads as follows:

• Scored United's first goal of pre-season on 16 July 2010, in a 3–1 friendly win over Celtic at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Canada
• On 8 August, he scored United's third goal in the 92nd minute of their 3–1 win over Chelsea in the 2010 Community Shield. After some sharp inter-play from Fletcher, Giggs and Nani, the Portuguese lifted the ball through for Berbatov who then lobbed it over the advancing Chelsea goalkeeper, Hil├írio
• Just eight days later Berbatov scored his and United's first league goal of the season, netting in the 33rd minute of their 3–0 home victory over Newcastle United in their opening fixture of the new campaign
• On 29 August, Berbatov scored his 3rd goal in just 4 games against West Ham United
• On 11 September, Berbatov scored his 3rd Premier League goal (and 4th overall) of the season in a 3–3 draw against Everton

This string of good form culminated in a phenomenal performance on the night of the 19 September, when he scored his first hat-trick in United colours leading the way in a 3–2 win against arch nemesis Liverpool. The three goals have brought his goal tally to 6 in the Premier League for the season. And these weren’t just tap-ins or poachers goals. Berba showed the full range of power, purpose and poise - beating markers to powerful headers, bullying defenders, holding the ball up, bringing midfielders into play, and delighting fans worldwide with an early candidate for goal of the season. Few would have attempted such a bicycle kick. Fewer still could have executed it with such precision.

His performances to date should have convinced even the most ardent critic that he has finally turned the corner, and is ready to lead United to further glory.

Glory, glory Man United.