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From Bulgaria With Love: Dimitar Berbatov

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“A man must face the world with sprezzatura. It literally means detachment, but a better way to think of it is quiet confidence or low key style. The most forceful statement is understatement.” – Luciano Barbera

Dimitar Ivanov Berbatov; erudite yet nonchalant footballer, suave gentleman off the pitch with the grace of a Robert de Niro and Al Pacino love child, wears a suit like a ‘kerchief on a countryside’s chambermaid’s head.

Perhaps it was that night in Turkey against Besiktas when he received a pretty straight forward Robbie Keane pass and jinked inside of one defender and with the slightest of touches swept the ball in the opposite direction to floor another defender and calmly rolled the ball into the net. The vivacious Tottenham supporters knew, Martin Jol knew it and the world knew it, the unhurriedness of the goal, the simplicity and the far away look of almost boredom of the man who conjured it was telling, a microcosm of the footballer, of the man.

He modeled his game alongside the lanky ball of elegance that is Marco Van Basten, game recognizes game. That alone showed what Dimi valued in football; he enjoyed the subtle wizardry, the fun in elegance, the hint of a dribble. Pace and power, the quintessential English power-breakfast of many in the football industry were the furthest facets from Dimitar Berbatov’s almost puritan approach to the game. I struggle to think of a time when I actually saw him run. The game always seemed to slow down to a trot in and around him when he had the ball, as if the opponents were in a trance, spellbound and hypnotized by his delicateness on the ball, beguiled by how he fondled the ball though barely touching it. Was it his body movement? Was it the ball? I haven’t a clue, his touch was so impeccable it reddened Wayne Rooney’s already rosy cheeks just to think of it, but he didn’t always touch the ball, he cajoled it forward gently as if a mother encouraging a babe to take it’s first step.

He was so sublime he was kidnapped by Bulgarian Mafia boss Georgi Iliev in order to convince him to sign for his own team Levski Kjustendil, he is that good. By his own admission he learnt how to speak English by watching the Godfather trilogy and he still retains the thick accent from his hometown of Blagoevgrad, it is hard to not to think of him as a Bulgarian Michael Corleone what with the easy going suave nature and almost perfect gentlemanly manners.

His history has been written about, his style much vaunted and discussed, his footballing prowess somewhat divisive but only the most insular football fan hasn’t been enchanted or doesn’t acknowledge the almost throwback style of player encapsulated by Berbatov the man who seems to have been born in a wrong era, a wrong culture. Hounded out by the English media for his supposed lack of effort, the media so blind sided by the rough and tumble chaotic league around them they couldn’t appreciate a true connoisseur of the game, a one off journeyman who needed to be accommodated to unleash his Einstein but was more often than not pitch forked like a Shrek while the Shrek lounged right under their bile laced pens.

Misunderstood genius are few and far apart, in his element Berbatov influenced more games than many care to admit. Perhaps the only manager to ever fully appreciate him was Martin Jol who allowed him the freedom of the green, a prolific deep lying forward. What he lacked in actual pace he more than made up for mentally, the ability to spot runs and find the runners with the most inventive balls; lofted, slid, outside of the boot, no look, threaded, he had no right to deliver them but he duly did.

He scored his fair share of stunners too, maybe it’s his detached ability regularly termed as inconsistency that denied him entry into the halls of the premier league’s finest. When he wasn’t in the mood he zoned out to more enthralling things, when he was in the mood he scored five in a game. Left out of the champions league final against Barcelona after languidly picking up a golden boot to boot had to be a dagger to his ego, yet not a word of complaint via the media escaped his lips, classy to a fault. His laissez faire attitude always suggested more important things than football like high stake gambling in Monaco or being a Mafia boss in secret. A watered down Michel Angelo in real life, it is on the pitch that fans of the various clubs where he passed by will always remember him serving the subtle hors d’oeuvres during matches before going on to the main course and grabbing games by the scruff of the neck.

“Style is when they are running you out of town and you make it look like you’re leading the parade”.

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When I reincarnate I want to come back as a cross breed of a Mateo Kovacic pass and an Andres Iniesta-David Silva love child.

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Everton 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from Goodison Park

Jake Jackman

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Manchester United

Manchester United managed to return to winning ways with an impressive away victory against Everton. This is a fixture that has caused United with problems down the years and Wayne Rooney was the focus of attention in the build-up as it was going to be only his second appearance against the club since leaving in the summer. It was a quiet one for the forward, as he picked up a yellow card and didn’t threaten as much as he would have hoped. The visitors took the three points thanks to strikes from Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. Here are three talking points from Goodison Park:

Jesse Lingard continues to impress and deserves his place in the starting eleven

The 25-year-old has been a slow developer, but he looks ready to step up a level and become a regular starter for Manchester United. He has been a good squad player for the club since breaking through as a young player, but he is now ready to make the move up to be a more important player at Old Trafford. He ended 2017 in impressive form and has started the new year in the same vein.

The attacking midfielder scored the second goal of the evening, as he struck an excellent effort to beat Jordan Pickford and put the result beyond doubt. He wasn’t short of confidence and looked to take shots at every opportunity. Lingard attempted five shots and his direct approach is one of the reasons he is in the team, as United need more goals from their midfield.

Lingard is an entertaining player to watch and isn’t afraid to take responsibility and run with the ball. He completed three dribbles against Everton and caused problems every time he got on the ball. Creatively, he will be hoping to improve during the coming weeks, as he made only one key pass on Monday. At times, his decision making could be improved, but he is headed in the right direction and his form in front of goal means that Jose Mourinho can’t drop him.

Everton need to sign a new striker

They didn’t have to deal with the return of Romelu Lukaku to Goodison Park as he was missing through injury, but it was clear that Everton need to sign a new striker in January. Oumar Niasse led the line against Manchester United and there was some good movement from him and the rest of the attacking players, but they caused few problems for the opposition when they had the ball.

The 27-year-old hasn’t fully convinced any of the three managers that he has played under at the club and it is unlikely that he is going to be the answer up front. There is no criticising his effort, as he was a willing runner and tried to impress, as his four successful dribbles show. However, he doesn’t have the required ability to deliver the level of performance that Everton want from their main striker.

Everton have been heavily linked with Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun and there had been speculation that a fee had been agreed, but the Mirror report that the deal is no in danger of collapse. It is a risk to sign a striker from Turkey and expect them to replicate the same form in the Premier League, but he appears to be the club’s primary target at the time of writing. If they can’t get his transfer over the line, they must move on to other targets. The current striking options aren’t good enough for a team with the Toffees’ ambition.

Paul Pogba showed why he is important to Manchester United

The French international continues to be doubted by many that like to point towards his huge transfer fee, but his influence can’t be understated. Paul Pogba is the most important player in the current Manchester United team. The club haven’t lost a Premier League game when the midfielder has played since October 2016. Meanwhile, United have lost five matches without him during this period.

Pogba is a forward-thinking player and is always looking to play positive passes. During the match, he completed five key passes and assisted both goals. As a creative presence from deep, there are few better players in the Premier League and there is hope that he can step up to the next level during 2018. He has been touted as a future Ballon d’Or winner and there is no reason why he can’t do that at Old Trafford.

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Three talking points from Newcastle United’s comeback against West Brom

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Newcastle United fought back from 2-0 down to end their losing streak in the Premier League against West Bromwich Albion. They played poorly for much of the game, but their performance in the last 30 minutes has given them something to build on. This was a precious point and one that could be looked back on as a turning point at the end of the season. The Baggies will be disappointed that they weren’t able to hold on to the lead and it is crucial that they appoint a new manager sooner rather than later. Here are three talking points from the match:

Aleksandar Mitrovic needs to start

This has been a hotly debated topic on social media as Newcastle supporters have been demanding that Mitrovic is given a chance to start in then Premier League. Since Rafa Benitez was appointed as manager at St James’ Park, his relationship with the striker has been rocky. The Spaniard is a control freak and likes to have players that he can trust. He doesn’t trust the 23-year-old and that is why he has been on the sidelines. There is no doubting his talent, but he can’t be relied upon to carry out the manager’s instructions.

In recent matches, Newcastle have offered little in the final third, with Joselu being one of the players that has received most criticism for that. He offers little goal threat and needs to be taken out of the firing line to save what is left of his confidence. Mitrovic offered a lot more when he came on, as he ran the channels and worked hard pressing the opposition defenders. His link-up play was better than Joselu’s and he managed to score, although it was disallowed for an earlier offside. Benitez needs to change something in his attack and the Serbian deserves a chance.

Salomon Rondon has a lot more to offer West Brom

There was a lot of excitement when Salomon Rondon signed for West Brom and he has yet to live up to that billing. His performance against Newcastle suggested that he has more to offer the club and that a new manager could be what he needed to fulfil his potential. During the match, he won three aerial duels, completed two dribbles and made one key pass. It was a great display from the striker as he showed intelligent movement and link-up play, playing a huge role in the Baggies attack.

In the first-half, the Venezuelan international hit the bar from range, as he displayed incredible technical skill to scare Karl Darlow in the Newcastle goal. The one disappointment will have been his role in the equalising goal, as Matt Ritchie’s free-kick was deflected off the striker, but there was little he could do about it. Overall, it was an encouraging performance and continued his positive momentum since the sacking of Pulis.

Newcastle miss Jamaal Lascelles

There would have been many Newcastle supporters that would not have had Lascelles in their starting eleven this season, despite the centre-back being their captain. The second-half of the Championship season was underwhelming for him, as he made several mistakes and looked nervy in possession. However, he was suffering with a hernia problem and in reflection, it was clearly affecting him on the pitch. This season, he has been one of the stars of this Magpies team and moved into the thinking of Gareth Southgate.

Since the centre-back suffered an injury against Bournemouth, Newcastle have picked up only one point and conceded ten times in only three and a half matches. In the 10 matches prior, the Magpies had only conceded nine goals and it has become evident that Lascelles is key to their survival hopes. They miss the organisation and leadership that he offers, as it brings a calmness to the rest of the team. The sooner he is back, the better for Rafa Benitez and this group of players.

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Aleksandar Mitrovic’s career at Newcastle United is reaching another crossroads

Jake Jackman

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Mitrovic

It is clear to anybody watching that Newcastle United need a top-tier striker if they are to make the step up to the next level. In the long-term, Rafa Benitez will have one on his shopping list, but there may be a temporary solution within the current squad. There has been a lot of clamour from supporters on social media for Aleksandar Mitrovic to be given a chance in the first-team. The Serbian international has had a turbulent career since signing for the Magpies, but there is no denying that he has talent and has the potential to be a good Premier League centre-forward.

Newcastle face a difficult test against Manchester United this weekend and their main problems lie in attack, with the team failing to score in their last two Premier League fixtures. Joselu was a cheap summer signing from Stoke City and although he has shown some encouraging signs, he isn’t the natural goalscorer that the side needs. Dwight Gayle was the club’s leading scorer in the Championship last season, but there remain doubts about his ability to replicate that form at the highest level. Both have been given a chance to make the starting spot their own and they have failed to convince. Mitrovic could be the best option of the three.

Since Benitez arrived towards the end of the 2015/16 campaign, he has had a mixed relationship with Mitrovic. There was hope that the arrival of a world class manager would bring the best out of the striker and see him develop into the player that everyone hoped he would be when he joined from Anderlecht.

Their working relationship got off to a good start as the Serbian scored the first goal of the Benitez era. Mitrovic was a handful against Sunderland in the North East derby and got the equaliser to prevent an early embarrassment for his new manager. Despite the club’s relegation during that season, the young striker was one of the rare bright spots as he scored nine Premier League goals in a poor team.

He scored on the final day in the Magpies’ convincing win over Tottenham. It came too late to save them, but the performance on that day and the reaction from the supporters was enough to convince Benitez to stay on as manager, as he saw the potential of the club. It wasn’t the only thing that the manager saw that day. The naivety of Mitrovic’s character was on display as he earned a needless red card. There was no reason to make the challenge and that action has led to his current position in the Newcastle squad. That is a squad player that can’t be trusted.

Newcastle put together a strong squad to attempt to achieve promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. Dwight Gayle arrived and there was a competition to be the starting striker at St James’ Park. The number nine shirt was vacant, with Gayle and Mitrovic both vying for it. The former was given the honour and that was the first sign that it would be a frustrating campaign for the Serbian. He will have been annoyed by his role, but he only had himself to blame as his stupidity against Tottenham earned him a four-match suspension to serve at the beginning of the new season.

Benitez couldn’t build a team around a striker that wouldn’t be available for the start of the season. The Newcastle boss is a perfectionist and he needs to have full trust in each of his players to carry out his instructions. The unpredictability of Mitrovic means that he doesn’t have that with the striker. Last season, the 23-year-old started only 11 of the 46 Championship matches. Considering he is an international that cost £13 million, it was expected that he would take the second tier by storm. The reality was that he wasn’t mentally ready to take on that role.

During the summer, there were rumours linking Mitrovic with a move away from St James’ Park. Benitez would have been unlikely to oppose an exit if a fair offer came in, but the lack of funds given to the Spaniard in the transfer market meant that he couldn’t afford to lose the Serbian. It put him in a difficult spot, as he knows he isn’t wanted, but he is doing little to force his manager to change his mind.

Against West Ham United, Mitrovic was given his first chance of the season from the bench and what followed was a microcosm of his Newcastle United career. He missed a great chance, scored the next and then elbowed Manuel Lanzini. Although he wasn’t sent off on the day, he was later hit with a retrospective ban and he has only been seen once since.

One of the prominent reasons why supporters want to see him back in the starting eleven is his form for Serbia. Although he hasn’t been playing regularly for the Magpies, he has been a key part of his national team’s success in qualifying for the World Cup. The 23-year-old scored six times in qualification and his consistency during the process suggests that he can become a very good player. Neither Gayle nor Joselu are scoring regularly and the feeling is that Mitrovic would offer a bigger goal threat.

The recent poor form in the final third has led to the supporters revisiting the Mitrovic issue. He splits the fan-base, but there are a lot of questions that have yet to answered. The growing calls for the striker to be given a chance will only increase with every game. Benitez needs to put an end to this issue once and for all. The manager may well be right in his judgement, but he needs to give the player one more chance. If it works out, then Newcastle will benefit. If it doesn’t, then it will be known, once and for all, that the striker doesn’t have a future on Tyneside.

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