By Mikey Mumford.
When he swapped White Hart Lane for Old Trafford in September 2008, Dimitar Berbatov had already adapted to the rigours and demands of the Premier League. He helped Spurs to the Carling Cup, scooped the clubs player of the season award in 2006/07 and was voted in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year all in the space of twelve months. Known for his intelligence, composure and unhurried style of play, Bulgaria’s most expensive footballer is edging ever closer to a century of United starts. In that time Berbatov has attracted comparisons to ‘King’ Eric Cantona – I take a look back at the time when Dimitar was swamped as the natural successor to the United legend.
Fighting against the clock in the final few hours of the summer transfer window in 2008; Sir Alex got exactly what he wanted again. It was a frantic deadline day to say the least overshadowed by the news that Sparky’s City side had been bankrolled by an Abu Dhabi Group who within hours had financed a move for Robinho from under Chelsea’s noses. Dimitar’s impending arrival at United was expected; the footballing world were grabbed by the mystery surrounding the transfer activity at Eastlands as they made late forays into the market (including an attempt to nab Berbatov). So spare a thought for poor Fraizer Campbell, whose move in the opposite direction to Spurs as part of the deal went relatively unnoticed as the window slammed shut.
Fast forward to Berbatov’s first goals for United a month later – albeit a low-key brace at Aalborg in the Champions League but with every game there were more references to the Bulgarian’s similarities with Cantona. The £30.75m man’s swagger and apparent arrogance reinforced those early comparisons to the legendary Frenchman but after helping his colleagues to the title in May 2009, Berbatov’s form dipped the following campaign. Speculation was rife the striker wanted out at a time when he struggled to find form and failed to find the net with ease – something he was doing admirably in North London.
We see prime examples of players involved in big money transfers fraught to making imminent impacts, yet it so happens new additions require time to settle in a new place, a new team before putting their best foot forward. Frustrating at times, Berbatov has certainly started to excel in a United jersey this year currently topping the Premier League’s goalscoring charts. The emergence of Javier Hernandez has restricted his playing time but his introduction from the substitute’s bench is testament to his undoubted ability. If goals justify hefty price tags then he repaid some of the faith five-fold by becoming the first non-Englishman to net five times in a PL match last year. This year he matched Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s hat-trick count in the same season – hitting his third against Birmingham in January.
Taking it all into account, should his name be mentioned in the same bracket as ‘King Eric’? Well, not for me. Yes, there are many similarities between the pair but equally there are just as many differences. Cantona holds iconic status at United, he joined United in a different era of football when the club were not the outfit they are now. Berbatov signed for a club that has dominated the Premier League since Cantona and co provided that initial catalyst for success. On the field, they are two different players too. But to label Dimitar the new Eric is unfair – yes they are both highly capable of producing a defining moment of magic in one split second but it is difficult to assess the impact of two players who played for United in different decades.
For me, Berbatov’s critics are right to shrug off his comparison to a true United great but while Eric’s shadow continues to loom over him he can expect to receive these type of appraisals. Instead, there are areas where Dimitar Berbatov can learn from Eric Cantona as a player but comparisons are unfair and far wide of the mark. Berbatov is a good player in a successful all-conquering squad – Cantona played a pivotal role in transforming Manchester United, a truly inspirational character and an all-time great. Although maybe that Palace fan might not agree!
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