The Genius of Dimitar Berbatov

Dimitar Berbatov is not a man given to verbal communication. "He was so shy, I spoke three sentences to him in five years. But he was superb, one of the best players I ever played with. With his potential, he could have been one of the best players in the world," remembers his former Bayer Leverkusen teammate Hans-Jorg Butt. Berbatov, then 21, reached the Champions League final with the German side in 2002.

In 2009 and 2011, he reached the final again with Manchester United only to lose to Barcelona. But on Wednesday, Berbatov was obliged to speak to a television journalist on behalf of his current club, Monaco, after playing a starring, scoring role in his side's 3-1 win at Arsenal.

"How did you manage to make Arsenal look so ordinary and you look so good tonight?" asked the presenter on the pitch as the Monaco fans celebrated.

"Because we are good," replied the Bulgarian.

Against Arsenal, Berbatov's skills (including his exquisite first touch) were on fine display. "Berba sees the art and beauty of bringing a ball down from 30 yards, then flicking it through with a back-heel. It's an artistic approach," said his first team coach at United, Rene Meulensteen.

Simple, accurate, brilliant. Manchester United fans were left to reminisce. Watching Berbatov on Wednesday, some United fans may have wondered what might have been, but can't the same be said of every former player?

Here is a reminder of Berbatov's brilliance.

May 7 2007

A stunning solo goal helped relegate Charlton as Tottenham Hotspur won 2-0 at the Valley. Latching on to Ledley King's pass, Berbatov spun away from Talal El Karkouri on the left wing then held off the Charlton defender before striding into the box and dispatching an angled shot beyond Scott Carson.

Dec 29 2007

Berbatov led the way in a White Hart Lane goal feast, scoring four times in Tottenham's 6-4 beating of Reading. Three of his goals were timed in the 63rd, 73rd and 83rd minutes.

Sept 19 2010

A spectacular overhead kick highlighted a magnificent hat-trick that brought Manchester United a 3-2 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford. Nani's cross fell behind the Bulgarian, but he brought the ball under control and swept an overhead kick past Pepe Reina via the underside of the bar.

Nov 27 2010

Berbatov ended an 11-match goal drought in stunning style, hitting five as Manchester United demolished Blackburn 7-1. The pick of the bunch? The brilliant overhead kick he executed for his second.

April 20 2014

Hailed as his best goal since arriving in France, Berbatov settled Monaco's home derby with Nice last April, using the outside of his right foot to lift an exquisite lob into the far corner of the net.

Source: Associate Press, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Fox Sports, YouTube
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The Magic of English FA Cup: David & Goliath

Manchester United boss Louis Van Gaal coined the phrase "twitching our ass" prior to his side's game at Cambridge. It must have been twitching overtime at the Abbey Stadium last night and it's safe to say he wasn't too happy after his moneybags side was held 0-0 by the League two minnows.

"Every aspect of the match is against us. We have to come here, the pitch is not so good, but that can influence also that you play in another playing style. The opponents are always giving a lot more than normally. And defending is always easier than attacking," said Van Gaal.

Just to give you an idea of Cambridge's achievement in holding Manchester United to a 0-0 draw, the Abbey Stadium side only got back in to the Football League this season after a nine-year absence. But does Cambridge boss Richard Money now believe they can go to Old Trafford and beat United?

"No. I don't, but you never know. We've said in the dressing room 'You're going to Old Trafford. Who cares what happens? Just go and enjoy it, soak it in'. This club has been in the doldrums for 10 years, out of the Football League, and suddenly here we are taking everybody back to Old Trafford. It's incredible," said Money.

Yes, the League Two minnows, whose starting XI cost nothing, held a United first XI which was worth £180m to a 0-0 draw to set up a money-spinning replay at Old Trafford. Cambridge wrote a little piece of FA Cup history as they battled to a 0-0 draw with Manchester United to earn a lucrative replay at Old Trafford.

It was another miserable outing to lower league opposition for Van Gaal’s men, who succumbed to a 4-0 thrashing at MK Dons in the League Cup earlier in the season.But the main story was the heroics of Cambridge, with many on social media quick to praise the League Two outfit’s efforts:

The Abbey Stadium outfit might be 76 places below their Premier League opponents but Louis van Gaal's side still couldn't find a way through Cambridge's defense. That, my friends, is what you call the magic of the Cup.

Source: Associate Press, Eurosport, BBC, The Guardian, Getty Images
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BVB: Klopp, Routine and Positive Thinking

Six months ago, Borussia Dortmund was the club supposedly set to provide the biggest challenge to apparent title favourites FC Bayern Munchen in 2014/15. At the halfway point in the season, however, BVB’s objectives have required radical alteration, with the club sitting second-bottom in the table - a staggering 30 points behind the leaders from Bavaria - after ten defeats in 17 games.

Now, Jurgen Klopp’s target for the remaining 17 games is very simple. He stated, “Get some wins on the board and make sure we stay in the division. Right now, where we finish is of no interest to me.” BVB’s winter training camp in La Manga, Spain has given the players an opportunity to get back onto the training ground and begin intensive preparation for the Bundesliga's resumption, but there is no doubt that their paltry points total in the league still rankles.

In a candid interview with German football magazine Kicker, Dortmund’s coach since 2008 expanded in depth on his comment following Matchday 17's 2-1 defeat to SV Werder Bremen that it had been “the worst first half to a season of our lives”. “We knew it would be tough, but nobody could have predicted the problems we ended up having, or the chain reactions that made them worse. Where we struggled wasn’t in identifying the problem but in finding the solutions. We tried to deal with the most pressing issues only, and swept everything else to one side. We lurched from one catastrophe to another and in the end didn’t have time to work out a proper solution,” said the Stuttgart native.

The glass is always half-full with Klopp, though, and despite the misery they endured between August and December 2014, the coach maintains the ordeal has helped his battered squad grow. With perfect conditions in which to train, prepare, analyse and plan for the second half of the season, and with some key players nearing a return to full fitness, Klopp now glimpses the outline of a bright future from the sunshine of southern Spain.

“In about a week, we’ve been able to train better here than we did than throughout the entire pre-season. We’ve been able to do what we couldn’t do before, and that’s practice our routines with a large group of players. Every player here training in La Manga is further in his development now than he was back in the summer. That’s what makes me optimistic,” Klopp continued.

Well-documented mistakes in defense were blamed as the cause for many of Borussia’s defeats in the league, but in fact, a potentially graver problem was their inability to convert chances. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is their top scorer with five league goals, while summer arrivals Ciro Immobile, Adrian Ramos and Shinji Kagawa have added just three, two and one respectively.

Perhaps of the utmost importance for Klopp, the squad and even the club itself, though, is that Marco Reus will be fit and raring to go when the whistle sounds to begin Dortmund’s game at Bayer 04 Leverkusen on 31 January 2015. After his 2014 campaign was seemingly decimated by various serious injuries, the worst of which prevented him from featuring in Germany’s triumphant FIFA World Cup campaign, 2015 marks a new start for the 25-year-old superstar, even if Klopp admits he will need time to get back to his competitive best.

Quite apart from the fact Reus’ return usually makes his team-mates play better, it is that type of selfless, team-oriented approach that Klopp will be looking to channel as die Schwarzgelben attempt to bring a turbulent campaign back under control. It is also in their favor that, regardless of their position in the table, they are only “four or five points from where we want to be".

Dortmund have made sure that the adversity of the first half of the season has made them an even tighter unit, and that will always be the core principle of any Jurgen Klopp side, regardless of its objectives. “We’ve not let ourselves become divided, we’ve not fallen apart and I haven’t lost my job. We’ve all endured a six months that we’d have gladly spared ourselves from, but that’s how things are during the difficult times in life. Now we start doing something about it,” Klopp stated.

Source: Kickers. Associate Press, Bundesliga, BVB

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AFCON 2015: Against All The Odds

The 30th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will kick off on Saturday, 17th January 2015 (in few hours from now), with organizers, players and fans hoping the tournament can thrive in the face of adversity.

It was only in November that Equatorial Guinea took over as hosts from Morocco, whose plea to postpone the finals over fears about the spread of Ebola was rejected by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). With concerns over the short time for Equatorial Guinea to prepare, worries about potentially poor attendances at matches in remote parts of the country and doubts about the infrastructure and facilities, football itself has taken a back seat in the build-up to the 16-team, 17 January to 8 February event.

It is not the first time the small, oil-rich central African state of Equatorial Guinea, with a population of just 740,000, has hosted the tournament - they did so jointly with Gabon in 2012. However, the extra burden of going it alone, and at such late notice, is weighing heavily.

Matches will be hosted in four cities; Bata and Malabo - as they were three years ago - and in Mongomo and Ebebiyin. The new venues will be relatively basic because there has been insufficient time to build better facilities in those towns. The stadium in Ebebiyin has a reported capacity of only 5,000. Even so, there is a real chance of it not being filled - one of the 2012 Nations Cup matches hosted by the country was attended by a tiny crowd of 200 people.

It is that kind of statistic which has moved the country's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema to personally pay for 40,000 tickets for fans to attend matches. "We have to buy tickets to fill stadiums. Let those who have the means help the poor," said Nguema. Additionally, the hotel capacity in the new host cities is minimal, making it a struggle for both media and fans to find accommodation and follow the tournament.

On the pitch, little is expected of Equatorial Guinea team, who were eliminated from the qualifiers when they were penalized for fielding an ineligible player - Cameroon-born Thierry Fidieu Tazemeta - in a match against Mauritania, only to be reinstated when they stepped in as hosts. It would be the biggest shock in the history of the tournament if the "National Thunder" became the 12th hosts to lift the trophy. Their chances of making any impact have not been helped by the fact their new coach, Argentine Esteban Becker, was only appointed 11 days ago.

The deadly virus, which broke out in West Africa in March 2014 and has claimed the lives of 8,386 people in six countries according to World Health Organisation figures, has cast a dark shadow over the tournament. However, there are no reported cases in Equatorial Guinea and the country's government has taken measures to prevent Ebola from reaching their soil, including hiring the expertise of a team of Cuban doctors. All players and visitors entering Equatorial Guinea will be tested for Ebola.

Source: Associate Press, BBC, The Guardian, WHO
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