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Player Focus: Dimitar Berbatov

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Player Focus: Dimitar Berbatov

 

A hoofed clearance rises high into the night sky. The crowd at Craven Cottage looks up and follows it's path into the darkness. Dimitar Berbatov watches too. The Fulham striker watches as he runs, never taking his eye off it as the ball falls back into the light and down towards the centre-circle where he stands as if on centre-stage.

Not even the onrushing Newcastle United defender Fabricio Coloccini can distract his gaze. Instead Berbatov leans on him, just as he would on a wall while smoking a cigarette and brings the ball down as though he were reaching in his pocket for a match or a lighter rather than to play through his teammate Damien Duff on the break down the right wing.

It was 8:12pm on Monday night. Time for some pipe and slippers football. Time for Berbatov to stoke the fire, pour the whiskey and tell a story.  "He was special tonight," Newcastle manager Alan Pardew acknowledged afterwards. "Everything he seemed to pluck out of the sky. Everything seemed to die on his toe - he was a real problem."

Before the match, Fulham fans who'd bought the matchday programme found a Berbatov interview within in which he did nothing to change the view held by Gary Neville on Monday Night Football that he is first and foremost an aesthete, who, to share an anecdote from their time together at Manchester United, "feels shooting is ugly."

In addition to explaining his outlook on the game such as "I don't want to watch players puffing around the pitch" and in particular expressing his disdain for "games where the ball is flying from one box to another" because it "makes my neck hurt", what stood out was his claim that he's misunderstood.

"People don't understand that I am a born No.10," Berbatov insisted. "They see me as a striker because that is where I've played all my life. But I have no problem playing in midfield. I can even play as a defender, no problem, because I see myself as experienced enough to know what my qualities are and basically I know how I can play."

He later added: "If I need to play in a No.10 role or more in the middle of the park I will gladly do this because I like playing with the ball. I like to get more touches, control the game and, like in music, orchestrate."

Certainly there's more Barenboim to Berbatov than Brian Glanville's Bull at the Gate. He's as much a conductor as a concluder of a team's play. And that's just as well for Fulham. Because following the departures of Danny Murphy and Mousa Dembele this summer and after the injury to Bryan Ruiz who had started the campaign so brilliantly with five assists in his first eight games, they need a creator just as much as they need a finisher to replace last season's 23-goal top scorer, Clint Dempsey. It threatened to become a major issue for Fulham.

"The truth of the matter," Fulham manager Martin Jol revealed, "is that every time when Bryan played we scored three against Arsenal, five against Norwich, three against West Brom, and [they] were flying and we beat them 3-0. Then he was out for four or five weeks so I was happy that Berbatov, after talking to him, will fill in that role."


Indeed, Fulham's goalscoring record in the league this season has been heavily affected by the absence of the Costa Rican. In the 9 league games Ruiz has played thus far, he and Berbatov have flourished, with the Cottagers averaging 2.33 goals per game. In the 7 games in which he hasn't featured, however, that figure has dropped to a lowly 0.86.

 

And so for the third time in the four matches since Ruiz's left hamstring problem emerged in the 3-1 home defeat to Sunderland nearly a month ago, Berbatov assumed the No 10 role against Newcastle.

 

Player Focus: Dimitar Berbatov

 

He was at the centre of everything Fulham did to say nothing of the left and the right. Berbatov was everywhere. He touched the ball on 84 occasions, 12 more times than on average this season and 12 more than the next Fulham player on the night, goalscorer Steve Sidwell too. Fulham played through him and why wouldn't they?

Only Robin van Persie, another player caught between the 9 and 10 positions who likes to refer to himself as a nine and a half, has a better pass success rate among 'forwards' in the Premier League than Berbatov this season with 82.2% compared to 79.3%.

And as for in the final third, they're almost as incisive as each other with van Persie recording a 75.6% success rate in contrast to Berbatov's ever so slightly inferior 75.1%. When it comes to creating chances too, no one other than Luis Suarez invents more among 'strikers' on average than Berbatov with 2.6 per game as opposed to 2.25 per game.

Pulling the strings and not the trigger on Monday night, Berbatov made four chances for his teammates. Were it not for some profligate finishing, he would have added to his three assists this season. He should have improved on his five goals too.

Through on his own in the 19th minute having pounced on a weak pass by Cheick Tiote and a Coloccini slip, he saw his shot saved by goalkeeper Tim Krul, who did well to stand tall. Then at the beginning of the second half, he hit the side-netting with the outside of his right foot, when, after being played in to the left hand channel of the box by grace of a neat one-two with Hugo Rodallega, he should have just put the laces of his left through it.

Not that Jol minded too much once the full-time whistle put the result beyond any doubt. "He didn't score and that was disappointing," the Fulham manager tutted, "but on the other hand he linked us up and kept the team together in the hole, as we say as a lower 10 and I was very happy with him... The good thing about my squad is that they realise Berbatov is an outstanding player and that he is the one when Bryan Ruiz is not there [who] is keeping us together in our playing culture."

Where Fulham would be without Berbatov doesn't bear thinking about. "For me the most important thing," Jol insisted, "is that after losing Dempsey who is making the difference for Spurs now as well as Dembele, plus Danny Murphy and Ruiz, I am very happy that he came to this club because otherwise maybe we could have ended up with a little problem."

It's worth pausing here just to remember how Berbatov's arrival came about: the flight to Munich paid for by Fiorentina, the missed connection to Florence's Peretola airport where the club's supporters and technical director Eduardo Macia were waiting at arrivals, the hijacking of the deal by Juventus, only for theirs to fall through too on a remarkable day that ended with the news he was staying in England and reuniting with Jol, his former mentor at Spurs, now at Fulham.

The saga, which added to the enigma of Berbatov as some kind of international man of mystery, also, it must be said, did nothing for his reputation in Italy.  "We're happy he did not come to Fiorentina," a club statement from the Viola read.

Fulham, however, were delighted. Michu may be the signing of the season so far in the Premier League, but Berbatov, at a reported £5m, can't be too far behind. At 31, he is a year older than another former United star George Best was when he joined the club in the Second Division back in 1976, and will no doubt claim to be the greatest talent to play by the Thames since then.

"I'm a very happy man and I think our fans will be very happy and proud," Jol said following his signing, "because it is probably the biggest in the history of the club, that is how I feel." It's a bold assertion but it's also not beyond Berbatov to prove Jol right in the years to come at the Cottage.

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Alexis Sanchez Pedro Sami Allagui Frédéric Kanouté Renato Augusto Jonathan Pitropia Eljero Elia Ivo Llicevic Fernando Muslera Diego Perez Alvaro González Abel Hernandez David VIlla Marcel Schmelzer Danijel Pranjic Holger Badstuber Sven Bender Johan Djourou Darren Fletcher Carlos Kameni Thiago Silve Antonia Di Natale Cristiano Zapata Domenico Criscito Luis Jimenez Josep Ilicic Samuel Eto’o Alexis Thébaux Ludovic Sané Mamouda Sakho Boukary Dramé Daniel Alves Nikolay Mihaylov Charles Puyol Ji-Sung Park Edwin van der Sar Dani Alves John O’Shea Park Ji-Jung Gabi Fernandez Jonathan de Guzman Michael Owen Gary Taylor-Fletcher Ian Evatt DJ Campbell Charles N’Zogbia Wolverhampton Robinho Rudi Garcia Avram Grant Conor Sammon Wayne Bridge Rob Green Victor Obinna Mike Hanke Borussia Munchengladbach VfL Bochum Tomasz Kuszczak Martin Olsson Brett Emerton Steven N’Zonzi Muset Ozil Gianpaolo Pazzini Leonardo Seydou Keita Miguel Pallardo Ibrahim Afellay Valdo Pallardo Damien Perquis Luka Modrid David SIlva Roberto Mancini Benoit Assou-Ekotto Vedran Corluka Carlo Ancelotti Saloman Kalou Clarence Seedorf Matteo Brighi Fabio Simplicio Rodrigo Taddei Mark Van Bommel Gennaro Gattuso Kevin Prince-Boateng Nicolas Burdisso Elkin Soto Pep Gaurdiola Lassana Diarra Jurgen Klopp Lucas Barrios Antonio da Silva Robert Mak Heurelho Gomes Andre Marriner Pinto Alavro Arbeloa Alexander Hleb Cameron Jerome

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