3 April ~ Manchester United have been called a one-man team for the past three seasons. Cristiano Ronaldo was said to carry them before leaving for Madrid and now Wayne Rooney is supposed to be their only match-winner. United fans might be fearing the worst ahead of Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford today, but Alex Ferguson has never allowed his team to rely on one player. In the same way that Ronaldo's exit provoked a reaction from Rooney, his injury ought to prove the catalyst for someone else to step up. If Dimitar Berbatov is ever going to prove his worth to the club, this is his moment.
The striker has had a frustrating time in Manchester. He struggled in his first season at the club, seemingly weighed down by his price tag and the obsession United fans had with Carlos Tevez. Berbatov has rightly garnered more plaudits this season but until last weekend the £31million forward sat behind "own goals" in the United scoring records.
Generally well-received when he signed, his assured first touch and eye for a perceptive pass should have set him apart in a fairly workmanlike United side. But aside from a few flicks and the odd goal, Berbatov has disappointed. He hadn't scored twice in a League game until last week. Having pursued him so vigorously, even Alex Ferguson seems to have lost faith in his record signing. But for Rooney's injury, Berbatov would almost certainly have started today's game on the bench.
Berbatov looks slow in a United shirt and seems weaker in the air than he should be. But the real concern for United fans is his mentality. Many supporters have equated his languid style with a lack of effort. But perhaps more worrying is a lack of confidence and drive. He seems to miss the quality Ferguson looks for in all his players – a ruthless streak. What Ferguson admires in Rooney is his "in-built hunger, in-built energy and in built desire". Similarly, Ferguson was always more impressed by Ronaldo's bravery than his goalscoring feats. The manager’s favourites have always been the players with a little spark – the competitive and combustible players who complimented their ability with a controlled nastiness. Peter Schmeichel had it. Eric Cantona had it. Paul Scholes – who fouls so consistently that people assume he can't tackle – has it.
On his returns to Old Trafford as a manager, Bryan Robson always offered his players the same advice – don't get involved with any personal battles on the pitch, especially with Roy Keane. Robbie Mustoe, who played for Middlesbrough under Robson, was told: "Don't upset him, don't try and mix it with him. If he gets riled, then he's a hell of a player to try and handle." Mustoe was effectively told to manage Keane's temperament as, if provoked, he would erupt into a much better player.
Berbatov will never carry the team like Keane, Ronaldo or Rooney did – his game is about feeding the players around him. But to carry United through the next month he doesn't need to start tracking back or running around like Carlos Tevez. All Ferguson will want from Berbatov is that he becomes affronted by the thought of losing and fights it with every means necessary. According to Ferguson, that is what makes good players become great.