Against Aston Villa, the Bulgarian offered a timely reminder he can also be the catalyst for the club’s revival, provided he can be persuaded to stay.
Berbatov had offered encouraging signs of a renewed appetite during the midweek defeat to Tottenham, Rene Meulensteen’s first game in charge. In the manager’s second game, Berbatov went one better, orchestrating a victory that ended a run of seven straight defeats and revived hope that this season can yet be transformed.
Once again moving languidly, rather than lazily, Berbatov played a part in the build-up to Steve Sidwell’s opening goal and then, demonstrating astonishing bravado, rolled a penalty past Villa keeper Brad Guzan following the shortest of run-ups after Alex Kacaniklic had been fouled by Leandro Bacuna.
At other times, the forward demonstrated his full repertoire of tricks and flicks, injecting a swagger into a vastly improved Fulham performance that was in stark contrast to the dismal display at West Ham in Jol’s final game.
Meulensteen was able to savour the win, satisfied he had drawn the best from his best player. The question, though, is how long will Berbatov stick around to help the Dutchman’s restoration project. Only last week, the player’s agent declared it is time for Berbatov to move on and Meulensteen was cautious to limit his immediate horizons to January.
“Dimitar makes a difference. Absolutely,” said the manager, who worked with the forward at Manchester United. “I thought he was excellent on Wednesday against Tottenham as well, but you saw what he’s capable of out there.
“Berbatov’s not a stranger. We had a good chat and we know what games we’ve got coming up to January, and he’s committed to Fulham. I’m just concentrating up until January.”
Asked when he would address the longer term with his player, Meulensteen added: “I can’t and don’t want to answer that. I’ll do that with the people who are relevant to discuss these things. I couldn’t be more delighted with his performance today.”
Meulensteen was keen to focus on the present after his team, the oldest Premier League team this season with an average age of 31 years and 25 days. Indeed, his midfield engine room of Scott Parker, Giorgios Karagounis and Steve Sidwell, all of whom were outstanding, boast a combined age of 99 years.
For once though, age was just a number and Fulham’s verve overwhelmed Villa. A bright opening by the visitors faded by the 22nd minute when Berbatov headed on and Ashkan Dejagah flicked a pass into the box for Sidwell to run on to and finish from a tight angle.
The second came from a Villa corner that was cleared, allowing Kacaniklic to break from inside his own half, drawing a challenge from Bacuna when he was had worked his way into the area. Villa boss Paul Lambert insisted his side were hard done by on that occasion, and doubly so when ref Mike Dean ignored a late appeal for a penalty when Gabby Agbonlahor went down under a challenge from Aaron Hughes.
“I don’t think we did enough to win the game,” said Lambert. “I am disappointed at some of the decisions, the two penalties for instance. I’ve just spoken to Mike there and he has his views on it, we have ours. Gabi’s one... even if we do get that we’d only have a few minutes to score, but it’s possible at that time. That’s football... you have to hold your hand up sometimes. Five games unbeaten was great. Put it into perspective, we’re still only three points off Manchester United.”
FULHAM (4-5-1): Stekelenburg 6; Riether 6, Hughes 7, Senderos 7, Riise 7; Dejagah 7, Sidwell 8, Parker 8, Karagounis 8 (Kasami 73,6), Kacaniklic 7 (Duff 77, 6); Berbatov 9.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Guzan 6; Bacuna 4, Herd 7 (Lowton 81,6), Clark 6, Baker 6; El Ahmadi 5 (Tonev 83,6), Westwood 5, Weimann 6 (Albrighton 81,6), Delph 6; Benteke 6, Agbonlahor 6.