Fergie still doesn't trust $50m man

Multimillion-dollar reserve ... Dimitar Berbatov rues another missed opportunity for Manchester United. The Red Devils play Chelsea on Monday morning, Sydney time.
Multimillion-dollar reserve ... Dimitar Berbatov rues another missed opportunity for Manchester United. The Red Devils play Chelsea on Monday morning, Sydney time.

Under pressure to finally justify his huge price tag, Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov fired his way to the top of the English Premier League goal-scoring charts. Things seemed to be going OK. But then he was dropped to the bench against Arsenal midweek.

By the look on his face he was decidedly unimpressed, but he should have seen it coming. That's because Alex Ferguson doesn't trust him; doesn't pick his record signing in big games; doesn't pick him in matches where both his talisman Wayne Rooney is fit and the opposition pose a huge danger.

AC Milan home and away. Bayern Munich home and away. Arsenal home and away. Berbatov was on the bench for them all last season and United played with one up front. As for Chelsea, he was unavailable for the away trip, and only played at Old Trafford because Rooney was crocked. And the result? The Bulgarian had a shocker and United lost.

The £30.75 million man must wonder what he has to do to win Ferguson over. He scored five against Blackburn in United's league match before Arsenal and has 11 in the league overall, just one fewer than last season. Not bad at all.

It all comes down to tactics. Ferguson likes an extra man in midfield in these crucial games because it makes United harder to break down, and allows them to get tighter to opponents. But that's not all. The Scot's tactics are a symptom of Berbatov's shortcomings.

Yes, the former Spurs man can hold the ball up, can pick a pass, has outrageous skill and provides tremendous cunning. But he's not suited to the robust style Ferguson likes to play in these pivotal matches.

Berbatov up front on his own doesn't work because he doesn't create enough space. He needs someone to do his running for him. That's why it's good for United to have Rooney back from injury, even if he hasn't scored from open play for the club since March.

You could see it against Blackburn. Rooney was constantly pulling the centre-halves away. He was on the left, the right, dropping off, creating gaps for his teammates - including Berbatov - to run into. United had someone up front toiling away. It was the same against Arsenal, this time with the England man leading the line alone.

It's no coincidence 10 of Berbatov's goals have come with Rooney in the side. Berbatov doesn't put in the hard yards, and this has been to United's detriment this season.

They might well be unbeaten in 16 league matches, but this has been by no means vintage United. Seven draws tell the story. Teams have sensed United's vulnerability; teams have felt they've had their measure. United are not what they were. They used to be a much scarier proposition. Give me Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez over Park Ji-sung and Berbatov any day.

And defensively, they've been poor until recently. Top teams go for weeks without conceding. But United just couldn't keep a clean sheet earlier this season. At times it was only their never-say-die attitude that saved them. Ferguson ingrains it in the players.

Considering their performances, the Scot will be pleased United are so well placed. And they are running into form. Rooney's given the team a lift, Rio Ferdinand is fit and the defence looks solid, while Michael Carrick has improved. The midfielder gets a bad rap - unfairly. It's no accident United won three league titles on the trot and a European Cup with Carrick pulling the strings.

United haven't won at Stamford Bridge in the league since April 2002, and Chelsea will be hard to beat. They got back to doing what they do best against Spurs - putting in the hard yards and winning the ball back. Because of that they were able to flex their creative muscle more. Do the same against United and their power game could give them the edge. But with the Blues on a terrible run, Ferguson's men have every right to believe they'll finally overcome their west London hoodoo. Whatever happens, Berbatov is unlikely to make the difference. He'll surely be watching from the bench. If he isn't, it'll go against everything Ferguson has done so far.

Watch Brian Brownstein's football videos at smh.com.au/brian