Payback time for Berbatov as United aim to slay Milan jinx
MANCHESTER: Dimitar Berbatov will never have a better opportunity to convince the Manchester United faithful that he was worth the 30.75 million pounds it cost to prise him away from Tottenham.
With Wayne Rooney likely to be sidelined by a knee injury incurred on England duty last week, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson is set to place his trust in Berbatov as the English champions attempt to defend a 3-2 first-leg advantage in their Champions League last 16 clash with AC Milan.
Ferguson is acutely aware that he has never got the better of a Milan squad in the competition and, having watched an irrepressible Rooney score twice in the San Siro last month, would have dearly loved to be able to unleash his top scorer once more on Wednesday.
Rooney however is unlikely to play any role in the match after succumbing to a knee injury that Ferguson has blamed on the heavy surface at Wembley, where the striker played 86 minutes for England on Wednesday three days after featuring for United in their League Cup final win over Aston Villa.
With Michael Owen out for the rest of the season, Berbatov is destined for centre stage and the Bulgarian knows Old Trafford will be an unforgiving place if he fluffs his lines.
Ferguson has verged on the strident in his regular defences of Berbatov's contribution to the cause but United fans, many of whom are still pining for Carlos Tevez's heart-on-the sleeve contributions, remain unconvinced of his value.
Rio Ferdinand, however, believes that the Bulgarian's popularity with his team-mates will eventually be mirrored by recognition from the Old Trafford masses.
"If we win the league this year, I think 'Berba' will be appreciated for what he has done," Ferdinand said. "When you look at the statistics you can see he is one of the hardest runners in our team and that he covers the most ground.
"He is a bit languid but he really puts the effort in. At the training ground, he is always in the gym. It's just his style of play, which means people see a different side to him.
"But I don't think that it actually reflects his importance to the team. He is appreciated by us and that is the most important thing."
It is not only in attack that United's options are restricted with, most significantly, Ryan Giggs still sidelined after breaking his arm, Michael Carrick suspended and England defender Wes Brown having joined an injury list already featuring Brazilian midfielder Anderson, back-up centreback Jonny Evans and Irish utility man John O'Shea.
History, in general terms, is on United's side. They have never been knocked out of the competition when they have returned to Old Trafford with a lead at the half way stage of a tie.
When it comes to the particular however, recent memory is more chastening, Milan having triumphed in the 2007 semi-final thanks to a 3-0 win in the San Siro following a 3-2 first-leg defeat at Old Trafford.
United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar recalled: "They played particularly well in the home leg here when we won 3-2 and Kaka scored two goals.
"Then at the San Siro, Clarence Seedorf was fantastic - he was excellent in both games actually. But we got a good result in Milan and now we need to finish it off with a magic night at Old Trafford."
Milan coach Leonardo will arrive in Manchester still unsure whether Alexandre Pato will be able to start, following the hamstring injury which kept the Brazilian prodigy out of Saturday's goalless draw at Roma in Serie A.