Monday, March 8, 2010

another romantic european night analyzed until its devoid of all anticipation

With each teams' most important player doubtful for the biggest game of the season for either thus far, perhaps a grain of salt should but applied with predictions or previews.

There's a strange tendency for star players to get knocked prior to big matches only to miraculously make the team-sheet, and both AC Milan's Pato and Man United's Rooney were included in their squads for the pivotal clash this Wednesday.

If the latter, at least, remains legitimately injured with knee inflamation, it forces United manager Alex Ferguson to apply Dimitar Berbatov up front alone. Sometimes a good decision results from necessity, not choice.

Without arguing the efficacy of the five-man midfield—the formation Ferguson historically flavors as the season enters its second half—Berbatov is actually the more naturally suited for the reclusive role when compared with Rooney.

There's no doubt the Englishman's form this season has been outstanding enough to illuminate himself regardless of formation, but on each's fundamental strengths, Berbatov should have no problem slotting in at Old Trafford.

Still Written Off

With Rooney inspiring the imaginations of fans worldwide this year, Berbatov has been at times forgotten, at others dismissed entirely.

Even Antonio Valencia, who's linear growth this season existed plainly for all to see, manages to still join Berbatov's name on lists of under-performing players.

While the Ecuadorian's inclusion may or may not be slightly more ridiculous, Berbatov's form this season—and last—precludes him from consideration in such consumer-friendly rankings.

It was bemusing at best, infuriating at worst, when the emotional Bulgarian couldn't get a game in November. Ferguson finally leaked that the forward's ailing knee was resulting in the pine time, which, if nothing else, restored some of the managers' credibility.

Berbatov started the season as he resumed it in December, generally in good form with the occasional mediocre game an exception, not the rule.

If only images of player form were resistant to the faulty memories in which we store  them, we'd not have to check statistics years later to reinforce what is then an incomplete rendering.

But in the 22 matches Berbatov started this season, United are 18-3-1, compared with an overall record of 31-9-4 in all competitions. The moody striker has a goal tally of 9 goals in those 18 starts, never scoring as a substitute.

This is all fine and dandy. But considering the emotional Bulgarian's style, his tally becomes more impressive.

The importance of dribbling and flair

Berbatov's most salient attribute is his ability to dribble past opposition with timing, a subtle shifting of weight, and an inscrutable change of pace.

Unfortunately dribbling has a lower success rate than passing and can often be derided by impatient commentators or fans. Even former United gloryhog Cristiano Ronaldo, currently enjoying absurdly brilliant form at Madrid, can be heard lampooned by Ray Hudson with hackneyed lines about "looks nice, end product? FUUUU".

But in England especially, and at United, where passing is the hallmark, one or few players with individual class and a penchant for the ridiculous is the difference between a draw and win.

Alas, the geometric effect attacking dribbling has remains underrated in the English game.

Essentially, when any attacker can lure a defender into a challenge, and go past him, the mathematical advantage shifts. The defender is subtracted from the equation entirely and more triangular options become immediately available.

Berbatov is one of only two players (Valencia) on United who can singularly get past a defender, and the only one who uses skill to do it. Allow me to run down a list of United attackers, to reinforce my point and slag a few of them off.

Park stays in front of the defense and couldn't dribble oatmeal. Nani will utterly fail more than he'll succeed only marginally. Carrick is an apparition. Scholes can niggle and wiggle but isn't played forward enough by his gaffer. Rooney is better moving without the ball than he is with it. Valencia has the raw strength and speed to get past defenders, but only on the wings.

So, besides being an intelligent and outstanding passer, Berbatov can dribble with aplomb, using the oppositions' weight against themselves like his last name was Gracie.

His ability to confuse and bemuse with the ball—dropping deep, in the box, at the byline, or out to touch—remains the most ineffable, and least quantifiable, aspect of his underestimated value to United.

Even as reports emerge today that Sir Alex will have $100m to spend in the offseason, and targets a striker, it's not alarming to Berbatov proponents, because Owen clearly isn't the long-term answer for a third striker, just as Saha and Tevez apparently weren't either.

Forza... United?

When Milan and Manchester finally resume yet another glorious tie on Wednesday, Berbatov will have the stage to showcase his utility to any stubborn critics.

His aforementioned strengths should translate directly to the style United will hope to employ, as being better at holding the ball and passing makes Berbatov more naturally fitted for this European role.

The 4-5-1 and the 4-3-3 are really different names for the same thing, and in such a formation attacks become naturally more horizontal than vertical, mitigating Berbatov's retarded speed.

The five-man midfield also necessitates a passing forward, and Rooney's touch can be too rough, lacking the finesse required when an isolated striker more rarely gets the ball.

United already lead on aggregate, three away goals to the good. Knowing that, Rooney's engine and tenacity—the hyped defensive aspects of the forward's arsenal—might lend themselves better without the ball.
But with it, Berbatov is virtually peerless not only at United, but in England and across Europe.

Those who manage to suggest that his transfer was a bomb are either positively naive, or likely dissuaded by his nuanced style.

Make no mistake, though, that the ones who enjoy his brand of football the least are the opposing players as he shrugs them off like autograph seekers.

With Rooney limping, the result of playing too much this season, there's no better time for Ferguson to be forced to try something that made sense a lot earlier, before United's talisman became overworked.

Though a Rooney on life form might be better in the role than a Berbatov in only good form, less will be required from the player more aptly suited to the lone striker role, especially as Milan must win by two at Old Trafford to advance to the quarterfinals.

And it's the sensitive Bulgarian's romantic style that makes him a fine—but dissimilar—replacement for Rooney when Milan march into town that frigid evening.

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