The first Premier League match of 2013 featured two strikers who are enjoying particularly fine seasons.
No, not Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez, they would have to wait a few hours and a day respectively to enter yet another entry in campaigns that are shaping up to be among the best of their careers.
Instead, in the early afternoon of 1 January it was Romelu Lukaku and Dimitar Berbatov’s opportunity to enjoy a few hours with the focus on them, with the latter’s Fulham side beating West Bromwich Albion 2-1 at The Hawthorns.
Compared to the aforementioned rampant reds (and indeed a few others) Lukaku and Berbatov have hardly been prolific in the goalscoring department this season —though seven apiece in the league is respectable enough.
Their value extends beyond goals however, that much was clear on Tuesday, as was the fact that they are two of the most entertaining performers in England.
These different but equally remarkable talents really were at the centre of so much of what was good about their respective teams.
At the conclusion of last season, both men’s circumstances were such that neither looked anywhere near being the type of player that would be asked to fill such a role, especially Berbatov’s.
The Bulgarian’s final season at Manchester United was a dispiriting affair, an unnecessarily prolonged existence in misery that had begun in earnest the moment he had been left out of the matchday squad for the 2010-11 Champions League final. That might sound an overly dramatic assessment of Berbatov’s final days in Manchester, but that was how badly the life had been sucked out of a player who had thrilled so momentously before and is doing so again.
On show at Fulham is the attacker that captivated so frequently at Tottenham Hotspur and inspired Sir Alex Ferguson to spend upwards of £30 million on signing a man most hoped would be the new Eric Cantona.
Berbatov’s first three seasons at Old Trafford were pretty good by most players’ standards, but not really close to approaching the realms which Cantona inhabited.
Ferguson never let Berbatov off the leash to the extent he required to be at his brilliant best, and therein lied the reason why it did not ultimately work out as well as all hoped.
United are a team that encourage creativity, but generally only within the greater constraints of the team’s needs (which is fair enough considering how successful that balance has been for them).
Berbatov is not averse to pulling his weight, but what his former Tottenham boss and current Fulham manager Martin Jol knows is that at heart this is a player who is a free spirit.
That in itself is a tougher thing to be at a club like Fulham who are attempting to transition from one era of players to another whilst not losing the stability of the last five years. But so far Berbatov is making it work, reveling in the freedom granted him by Jol (though his frustration at playing with lesser mortals invariably seeps through on occasion!).
Berbatov was the graceful and occasionally scintillating inspiration behind some of Fulham’s best work against West Brom, but for the Baggies it was the dynamic and powerful Lukaku who was behind their most dangerous and exciting moments.
One of Europe’s mostly highly-rated teenagers only a couple of years ago, by May of last year the Belgian was a frustrated figure on the periphery at Chelsea.
There was not as much concern over the prospects of a player still in his teens as there was for the much older Berbatov, but at that point it was hard to envision Lukaku having the season he is now (even for those who had seen him emerge at Anderlecht) if he stayed at Stamford Bridge.
Credit must be paid to his manager Steve Clarke for the care with which he has handled his young charge’s use since arriving on loan in the Midlands. Lukaku has appeared as substitute in more games than he has started, gradually being given the English football beginners-lessons he ideally would have got already at Chelsea.
The physically imposing forward is not yet the finished product, but the raw attributes are already evident. Against Fulham there was a 20-minute spell beginning the second-half where Lukaku utilised these extremely effectively.
While his goal was a relatively simple (albeit possibly offside) finish from six yards, there were three or four other bursts into the penalty area that the shell-shocked Cottagers were lucky to escape unharmed from. Aerially there was evidence of someone who will soon be giving plenty of burly central defenders their money’s worth too.
The Premier League has been a more enjoyable watch for having Lukaku and Berbatov playing regularly this season. Others can make that argument for themselves too. But considering these two were out of sight and out of mind last year, it is certainly good to see them now.992970