Manchester United will welcome Dimitar Berbatov back to Old Trafford for the first time on Saturday as Fulham visit in the FA Cup fourth round. The Bulgarian forward left United for the Cottagers last summer after four years in which he divided opinion among the club’s support.
While he finished as the Premier League’s joint top scorer in one season and scored a memorable hat-trick against Liverpool, his languid style often seemed at odds with United’s fast-paced ideals. Gradually it became apparent that manager Sir Alex Ferguson came to trust him less and less in the crucial matches. The situation reached its nadir when Berbatov was not even named among the substitutes for the 2011 Champions League final.
Yet, ahead of Berbatov’s return, Ferguson has defended Berbatov’s time at Old Trafford.
“I don't think he was a failure here,” he said, according to Manchester United’s official website. “He did a great job here. He's a really good player but the problem was that I had choices and it’s never easy at his age to be a part of those choices if he is not playing.
“Therefore, we were happy enough that he wanted first-team football and we gave him the opportunity to go to Fulham. I think, at his age, it was the right thing to do. I think he has done pretty well there.”
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“I think Berbatov is Fulham's best player,” Ferguson added.
It may be hard to argue with that last assessment. Berbatov has benefited at Fulham from the team revolving around him. When he ticks so does the team. United will be in no doubt about who to focus their attention on come Saturday.
Fulham’s form has stuttered of late, though, and they will also be traveling to a ground where they have suffered defeat on the last 10 occasions. Manager Martin Jol will be unable to call upon former Manchester United midfielder Kieran Richardson who has a calf injury.
United have now gone 10 games without defeat in all competitions and Ferguson has been quick to emphasize his desire to do well in the FA Cup this season after having gone nine years since lifting the trophy. There are sure to be some changes to the starting lineup, though, with Ferguson likely to give some fringe players game time. Both Ashley Young and Jonny Evans will be unavailable through injury.
Manchester United (probable)
G: De Gea
D: Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Buttner
M: Carrick, Anderson
Nani, Rooney, Kagawa
D; Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Briggs
M: Dejagah, Sidwell, Karagounis, Kacaniklic
Prediction: Berbatov is likely to be fired up to try and show his full range of abilities at Old Trafford, although that could also lead to frustration if those around him are not on the same wavelength. As they have been for several seasons, Fulham have been poor away from home this campaign and they may struggle to get a foothold at Old Trafford.
While it remains to be seen just how many changes Ferguson will make, United’s side should be good enough to get the win.
Manchester United 3-1 Fulham
Where to watch: The FA Cup fourth-round encounter will kick-off at 12.30 p.m. eastern time. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel, with an online stream available almost immediately following the match on Fox Soccer 2Go.