After the shock 1-0 defeat to Wigan dealt a blow to Sir Alex Ferguson's hopes of retaining the title, could the record-signing be the missing link to help them over the line?
By Ed Aarons
As Manchester United were falling to their first defeat in 15 matches against Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night, there was one member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad who remained conspicuous by his absence.
It has now been more than 10 weeks since £30 million record signing Dimitar Berbatov was last seen in a Red Devils’ shirt in a Premier League match - when he scored United’s second goal from the spot in a routine 2-0 win over Stoke City on January 31.
Since then, the Bulgarian has watched his team-mates put together an eight-match winning streak that most observers agreed had all but guaranteed a 20th league title after overtaking Manchester City at the summit of the Premier League.
But all that changed on a memorable night for Roberto Martinez’s side as United toiled against a three-man defence and could not find the breakthrough. After falling behind to Shaun Maloney’s goal, the visitors were forced to chase the game yet came up short against a side who had only won twice previously at home all season.
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It could all have been so different had Berbatov been sitting on the bench. The Bulgarian may not have been given many opportunities over the past two seasons, but on the rare occasions he has been selected the 31-year-old has proven his eye for goal remains as sharp as ever.
A hat-trick against Wigan in the 5-0 stroll at Old Trafford back on Boxing Day was followed by another two against Blackburn on New Year’s Eve, meaning Berbatov boasts a record of seven goals in just five Premier League starts. Yet despite deciding to extend his contract for another year, Sir Alex Ferguson has mysteriously decided that Berbatov is surplus to requirements and admitted he is likely to leave at the end of the season.
But with Manchester City now breathing down his neck again, it may be time for a rethink. Rooney is showing signs of tiredness after the congested Easter period, so who better to provide the creative spark that United so clearly missed against Wigan than the enigmatic former Bayer Leverkusen striker?
While he has never really cemented his place in the cast of Old Trafford legends since the controversial switch from White Hart Lane in 2008, Berbatov possesses the experience and know-how to play a critical role in the title run-in.
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Last season, he developed a track record of scoring vital goals as the season reached boiling point, including the winner against Bolton in a tight victory in March and the first goal in the 2-0 win over Fulham a month later.
Given the lack of action this season, however, he may only have a few weeks left in Manchester. Agent Emil Danchev has admitted his client has already set his eyes on a move to another European league with Paris Saint-Germain understood to be ready to offer a hefty financial incentive to move to the French capital.
But with Michael Owen absent, Ashley Young blowing hot and cold and Javier Hernandez struggling to replicate his debut season in the Premier League, the stage seems set for Berbatov to make a final contribution to the Red Devils’ cause.
The only question is whether Sir Alex sees it that way.