Unique Berbatov not one for all tastes
LONDON -- David Ospina won't need reminding, even if injury means there will be no chance to settle the score this weekend. When he closes his eyes, the ball hasn't yet come down above his head. Perhaps he could have been slightly less tight to his near post -- there's a small chance, too, that Berbatov miscued and was looking for Valere Germain. Either way, the Colombian's desolation at being caught out by the Bulgarian's angled, standing lob early in Nice's April visit to Monaco was captured gleefully by the cameraman. Another victim of Dimitar the dilettante. That was the narrative, picking his flourishes as he pleased.
In a parallel universe, Ospina now sees the whites of Berbatov's eyes every day at Arsenal's London Colney training base. With the Gunners' summer proactivity having yielded far earlier results, Ospina among them, than anybody is accustomed to, talk back in January of a move for the then-Fulham striker seems like smallish beer. But it was there -- aided, undoubtedly, by Theo Walcott's injury and Arsene Wenger's reluctance to lighten the load on his beast of attacking burden, Olivier Giroud. Berbatov himself entered into the spirit of things, sharing a YouTube video named "Berbatov could fire Arsenal to the title" that materialised on the back of a television panel discussion. Could he have done -- should he have done -- exactly that?
Not according to Wenger, who dampened the speculation before Berbatov eventually wound up where, so it went, a man of his mores belonged -- tapering off louchely among Monaco's yachts, condos, models and Formula One drivers. "Berbatov is not a name we have considered," grunted the Arsenal manager; perhaps it had, then, been fanciful thinking from the 33 year-old, who is no stranger to playing the game that exists in his own head.
Yet, as Berbatov glided around the newly chessboarded Emirates Stadium turf against Valencia on Saturday in a match played almost entirely at Berba-speed, oblivious to the Tottenham-despising boos that greeted his every early touch, you wondered whether he might have been a horse for a particular course. It took only 6½ minutes for a no-look flick to Joao Moutinho to thaw the locals, the "aaaahhhhs" underlining that his, at heart, is a talent few can bring themselves to detest.
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Back in November 2012, Berbatov produced a masterclass at the same venue. It didn't matter that Fulham had been pulled back to 3-3 late on, or that Mikel Arteta had then missed a penalty that would have rendered their work of no consequence. The first 70 minutes of that match had been, like Saturday's, conducted to his tune: A technically decent visiting side with little natural pace had felt confident enough to run around and beyond its talisman, knowing the ball would stick and then be delivered with information on it. Berbatov even found time to score two of that season's 15 goals.
It is not hard to see why -- both then and 14 months later -- Berbatov seemed from some angles to be an ideal fit at Arsenal. Giroud's link-up play has improved immeasurably -- his clipped balls over the top becoming a feature of his side's game at times -- but Berbatov's intuition, his ability to see, to cajole, to work around Arsenal's slew of attacking midfielders while scoring prolifically himself, would have -- to slightly rework a cliché -- added several new dimensions to the North London side's incursions. The extra depth, both numerically and in terms of positioning, would have been welcome.
A fit Theo Walcott, a barnstorming Lukas Podolski, a surging Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere -- all could have felt confident in seeing their enterprise recognised. And Giroud, when rested, would have been obliged to watch and learn from a finisher of colder blood than will ever course through his own veins. What might have transpired if the chance the Frenchman missed early in the humbling at Stamford Bridge had fallen to Berbatov?
It is easy to turn Berbatov into a raffish caricature; it is less straightforward to dispute his efficiency, both of movement and of end product, in more than one area of the pitch. But the problem lies exactly where the marvel also does: between his own ears. "I've played the way I play all my life. I try to do different things, beautiful things, to play the game the way I see it, and I think I'm doing it pretty well," Berbatov said after arriving in Monaco.
Being the last of the romantics is one thing. Being part of a Wenger schema is another. The Arsenal boss, for all his idealism, is as fond of a structure as the next man. Those who stray too far from the single, collective vision drawn up in those Hertfordshire corridors are eventually set free. Emmanuel Adebayor was one, Alex Song (whose priorities were best summarised in his penultimate game for Arsenal -- a 3-3 draw with Norwich in which a delightful assist for Robin van Persie was swiftly followed by a breathtaking piece of defensive negligence for the Canaries' equaliser) another. It is why Joel Campbell might, in the long run, struggle for a future in North London.
You can be a soloist under Wenger, but the terms won't be yours.
Signing Berbatov as cover might have made some sense in a January window that Wenger detests, but Arsenal aren't shopping at the curio stall anymore. The addition of Alexis Sanchez emphasised the point, and his performance for Chile against Brazil in June spoke plenty about the Gunners' new direction. For influence, for end product, for diligent interplay with every one of his teammates, it could have been Berbatov. For speed, for intensity, for directness, for an appetite for gladiatorial combat, it was several trips away.
Arsenal have moved away from the era of making do and mending -- if a club's forward momentum and purpose can be measured in its transfer dealings, a dabble for Berbatov this summer would have appeared unnecessarily retrograde.
Berbatov will run out to more boos when Monaco play Arsenal on Sunday; he might find the crowd less easy to placate with a waft of the foot, too, but it's best to leave him be. "I feel at home here," he said upon signing a one-year extension to his contract in May, any Arsenal ship sailing forever. And, while Ospina might have his own reasons to be thankful, the bigger picture is that this is a talent whose last light will be best enjoyed at its own pace, in its own place and at a remove that allows ingenuity to be enjoyed for its own sake.