For two seasons, it was Manchester United's $45 million question: What does Alex Ferguson see in Dimitar Berbatov that caused the financially cautious Scotsman to part with such a ludicrous sum?
For two seasons, the answer was a bit of a mystery.
Less so, suddenly, now.
Six goals in five Premier League matches. An emphatic hat-trick against old enemy Liverpool. And most important of all, the Bulgarian striker is finally playing with the fire-in-belly determination of someone who understands that he still has a lot to prove and not, as he sometimes did, like an overpriced mistake who was reluctant to muddy his famous red jersey.
"Probably one of my best games for United," Berbatov said Sunday after his three goals ensured that Liverpool didn't go home from Old Trafford with what would have been an undeserved point.
Well, after almost 100 appearances for United, it was about time, too.
Berbatov's talent and skills on the ball have never been in doubt. Tall but less lanky than Tottenham's Peter Crouch, he has the sprightly agility of a smaller player. There was a Brazilian whiff to Berbatov's sumptuous second goal against Liverpool. With his back to Pepe Reina's goal, Berbatov took the bite off Nani's cross by bouncing the ball off his right thigh and then, while it hovered in front of him, hurled himself backward for the overhead kick. Thump, off the underside of the crossbar, goal. What stunning foot-to-eye coordination. As Ferguson noted, players who try such spectaculars don't often get them right.
But, taking a longer view, Berbatov's final goal that made it a 3-2 win was arguably more reassuring from the United perspective because of what it promises for the future. Berbatov soared above Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher to head in the ball and become the first United player since Stan Pearson in 1946 to score three at home against Liverpool. More importantly, it was the goal of a match-winner and of a player with the courage and desire to throw himself into a penalty-box fight. United needs Berbatov to be both of those this season if it is to catch and keep up with the winning tempo of Chelsea. In winning its first five games, the defending champion has scored as many premiership goals, 21, as Berbatov did in his first two seasons combined with United.
So the question is: Has Berbatov really turned over a determined new leaf or has he merely had a good month? Because the problem before now was that too often he didn't always seem to be trying, or rather didn't seem to be trying as hard as one might reasonably expect from someone who cost so much.
Like an expensive bauble, his playing style was often easy on the eye but didn't always look very useful. In a league proud of its thumping physical intensity and in a team of bulldozers like fellow striker Wayne Rooney and defender Nemanja Vidic, Berbatov seemed content to amble and stroll. Some described his style as languid, those less kind as lazy. He looked like a player from a bygone, less strenuous age, as incongruous as a ballet dancer at a Metallica concert. His halfhearted penalty miss in United's 2009 FA Cup semifinal loss to Everton must still rank as one of the most bloodless efforts ever. It was all enough to make one wonder whether Ferguson, after more than two decades at United's helm, was losing his judgment.
Of course, Berbatov was never quite the waste of space that critics made out. Playing alongside the yapping energy of Rooney makes many players, not just Berbatov, look pedestrian in comparison. Being a striker at United, with its sky-high expectations and constant comparisons to hallowed benchmarks like Eric Cantona, requires supreme self-confidence, which Berbatov seemingly took time to acquire. He looks more comfortable now. He still strolls — he passed coolly with one touch to Paul Scholes against Fulham last month and then casually wandered out of the way of the midfielder's fierce goal-bound strike. But Berbatov's hard work is now clearer, too.
Ferguson, of course, would have us believe that he always knew that Berbatov would eventually get there. It would be uncharacteristic of the hard-grit manager to acknowledge that he may have had his doubts at times. Certainly, it is much easier, at last, to now see what Ferguson claims he always saw in Berbatov — a goal-scorer of true quality.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org