Fulham's nonchalant nonpareil is returning to Old Trafford, where he soared so high and fell so low
It is the sort of evening that feels exquisitely tailored for Dimitar Berbatov. The stage, the lights, the live TV audience and the narrative that calls for him to steal it all as the leading man. Martin Jol, his manager at Fulham, has enjoyed his peep at the script of Berbatov's return to Old Trafford in Saturday evening's FA Cup tie. "Hopefully, he will score a couple of goals," he says. "It's not important if they will cheer or celebrate … score a couple of goals and don't celebrate. That will be nice."
Perhaps there could be a message on a vest, steeped in the kind of nonchalance Berbatov has long specialised in. It would not contain any pop at Manchester United, his previous employer of four years. It is not his style. And this is not a point-proving performance. Again, not his thing.
There is the possibility that some United fans would enjoy seeing Berbatov seize the occasion; those who saw in him the player they themselves once wanted to be, those who got him, those who felt sorry for him over how it ended at United, with the brutal omission from the Champions League final squad in 2011. He would stay for another season before his move to Fulham, but something fractured that night at Wembley against Barcelona.
Berbatov pitches up at what was meant to be his theatre against a backdrop of edginess, frustration and difficult adjustment. Fulham have laboured since early November, their free-scoring enterprise having given way to something of a grind and nine Premier League points from an available 36. There are nervous backward glances and few signs of an incoming big signing in January. Where are the £21m proceeds of the August sales of Mousa Dembélé and Clint Dempsey to Tottenham Hotspur when you need them?
Berbatov has gone from an environment in which victory was so necessary and routine that it barely brought pleasure, to one in which staff wonder where the four wins that ought to bring top-flight survival are coming from. "Berbatov was always playing for clubs who could win things," Jol says. "He played in the 2002 Champions League final for Bayer Leverkusen. Here, it's different and it's probably quite a change for him. I'm still trying to get it in his mind that we've got different targets."
Berbatov seems to be struggling with the transition, in terms of what he has to expect from his team-mates, and it was possible to detect exasperation in the slogan that he revealed on his vest after scoring against Southampton on Boxing Day. The implicit continuation of his slogan, "Keep calm and pass me the ball", was: "If you are capable of doing so".
"He is good," Jol says, "but he will still show it if you don't give him a good ball or the final ball's not good enough. I would love to get it out of his, sort of, attitude but I don't think I will manage that. If things are going well, you can see the other players will accept it. If not, you're always going to have one or two players who will start sniping at him. I have to control that. But until now, they're quite happy he's here."
Berbatov cannot be bent to the will of others. He is what he is and he does what he does. Sir Alex Ferguson's gripe about him at Old Trafford was that he slowed up United's offensive game with his desire to weave those elaborate patterns. The manager signed him for a club record £30.75m from Tottenham in 2008 because he felt the attack that had just won the Champions League needed a fresh dimension. But Berbatov could not adjust to United's tempo as, say, Robin van Persie has done since his arrival from Arsenal last summer.
Berbatov embraces contradiction. He is the stroller who appears not to try but is feted for his dedication and love of the game. He would wear shades to the cinema yet is a head-down, himself-to-himself kind of guy. He is arrogant but never once during his time in Manchester did he criticise Ferguson or United, even when he was out of the team.
He continues to polarise United's fans. His most memorable moments in a red shirt were not always of the greatest import, such as his spell-binding skill and assist against West Ham United in 2008 or his brief Franz Beckenbauer-style performance at centre-half against Leeds last season. Most United supporters remember a flick or a piece of velvety control. To cherish those is appreciate the man.
Berbatov's best season was 2010-11, when he scored 20 league goals, including hat-tricks against Liverpool and Birmingham City, and five in one game against Blackburn Rovers. He shared the Golden Boot with Manchester City's Carlos Tevez but, in some quarters, his cluster-scoring devalued the achievement. His season would end in the heartbreak against Barcelona, when Ferguson preferred Michael Owen on the bench.
The naysayers complain that Berbatov did not score against major rivals. They highlight his three-year goal drought in the Champions League and there is the old chestnut about him not working hard. He delighted United fans by snubbing City in favour of the move to Old Trafford, a decision that was celebrated in terrace song. His most savage critics say that it was the best thing he did for United. Berbatov did not play regularly – he was a 66th-minute substitute in the 2009 Champions League final against Barcelona – and there was a reason for that, which was not favourable.
The positive reading of his United career, though, celebrates his balletic quality and focuses on his Premier League numbers: 48 goals in 82 starts and 26 substitute appearances. He went to Old Trafford to win things and he claimed two titles and one League Cup.
"I don't think Dimitar was a failure here, he did a great job," Ferguson says. "The problem was the way we wanted to play, the selections we had. The hardest thing was when we had Tevez here also. That affected both of them.
"Some people like to see players run through brick walls and Dimitar is not that type. But he's a very talented boy who had a decent goalscoring record here. It was a terrible decision to have to make [in the 2011 Champions League final] and Dimitar didn't take it well, which you expect."
"It will be good to see Berby," adds the United midfielder Ryan Giggs. "He gave the club so much great service. He was such a talent and we'll have to keep an eye on him. I'm sure the crowd will give him a good reception."
Berbatov was unavailable for comment. He is too cool for interviews, although he did give one to the Fulham programme last month. Unsurprisingly, it was not run-of-the-mill. In it, he talked of his passion for "beauty and grace" in football; how he did not "want to watch players puffing around the pitch. You see games where the ball is flying from one box to another and it makes my neck hurt," he said. "That is not football for me."
All eyes are on Berbatov.