THE careers of Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez have been inexorably linked yet apparently on divergent paths for most of this campaign.
Yet, for 45 tantalising minutes at Old Trafford on Saturday, they gave an all too rare glimpse of what can happen when these two wildly contrasting talents peak together.
What happened was, put simply, the most devastating attacking half that the Premier League has seen this season.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney scored two goals apiece and the latter was roundly praised, named man-of-the-match by the television pundits. Yet, the contributions of Berbatov, who scored the final goal of the five United hammered past Heurelho Gomes in 22 stunning minutes, and Tevez were, arguably, even more crucial.
Alex Ferguson, mindful of the criticism the £30 million Berbatov has received since his horrendous penalty miss in the FA Cup semi-final shoot-out loss to Everton, certainly went out of his way to heap accolades upon the Bulgarian, a short, sharp reminder to United supporters about who really knows best at Old Trafford.
“It was a fantastic performance from him,” said Ferguson. “I don’t think he gave the ball away once throughout the game. I thought he was our best player in the first half and in the second half he produced some wonderful moments.
“He produces moments that you say: ‘That’s world class.’ Look, he’s missed a penalty kick, so, how many players have done that? Rio (Ferdinand) missed one last week and it’s all forgotten about.
“Berbatov’s missed his and it was a bad penalty kick, I make no excuses for it — but because of the money we’ve paid for him it’s not forgotten. But we have to move on. It’s only a missed penalty.”
Ferguson’s desire to lift some of the pressure mounting upon Berbatov had one other side effect, however.
It failed to acknowledge the role of Tevez in this remarkable turnaround. It is no exaggeration to claim the Argentinian may have won the title for his club with his contribution after coming on as a half-time substitute.
Tevez transformed a game in which United had performed anaemically . They trailed to goals from Darren Bent and Luka Modric, both coming from Aaron Lennon’s right wing where Patrice Evra was enduring an afternoon to forget.
Ferguson, correctly, identified a lack of pace and urgency in his team’s first-half play, a malady that the injection of Tevez instantly remedied. Pugnacious, tenacious, Tevez hounded Spurs’ midfield and back four utilising a modus operandi that stands in stark contrast to the more languid Berbatov.
Rooney has his own unstoppable energy and dynamism; Ronaldo his guile and peerless skill; but does any United player have the ability to alter the pattern and pace of a game quite as effectively as does Tevez?
“Carlos Tevez, I think he changed the game because he started to press the defenders and the team pushed up,” said Ronaldo.
“We scored early in the second half and it changed the game. The boss said if we scored one goal we would score four or five and this is what happened.” Instantly energised by Tevez, United took just 11 minutes to score, courtesy of Howard Webb’s appalling penalty decision following a Gomes challenge on Michael Carrick.
Ronaldo converted that penalty, headed in a third while Rooney claimed the second and fourth following passes from Tevez and Berbatov, respectively.
Besides the destiny of the title, there was another intriguing, if parochial, sub-plot revolving around Berbatov and Tevez. Last week, Tevez was quoted in South America complaining about his lack of first team opportunities and stating he will leave Old Trafford when his current loan expires this summer.
Ferguson moved quickly to state that he believes the Argentinian will remain with his club this summer, even allowing for the complicated status of his contract, and links with Liverpool and Manchester City have already been mooted.
On the evidence of the last few weeks at Old Trafford, Tevez would appear to be a far more vital component in the current United squad than Berbatov, a view that seems to be shared by the vast majority of United supporters.
For Tottenham, defeat presumably ends their fading hopes of qualifying for Europe next season although manager and players can look towards next season with reasonable optimism.
After all, but for Webb’s terrible penalty decision — an error compounded when he appeared to be about to award the visitors a free-kick only to wave play on in the build-up to United’s second — Spurs might have pulled off a remarkable upset.
“I don’t really criticise referees, and I don’t want to go too far on the matter, but I think that was a prime example of a referee crumbling over pressure at Old Trafford,” said midfielder Jermaine Jenas.
“The atmosphere, the occasion, the importance of the match, a lot of factors take their toll when making decisions.
“One thing which struck me about it was that he didn’t even think. It was like he’d already made his mind up when he came out for the second half that he was going to give something.
“I don’t want to criticise him too much because he’s a good ref and I like Howard Webb, but I think he will definitely sit down and admit he got that one wrong.”
REFEREE: Howard Webb (Yorkshire) 4: The penalty decision belonged firmly in the ‘dodgy’ category while Harry Redknapp also seemed to have a valid complaint over United’s second.
MATCH RATING: ***** With apologies to Liverpool fans, this was drama of the highest order — high stakes football with nothing less than the title up for grabs.
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