Dimitar Berbatov, right, trains alongside his Manchester United team-mate Michael Owen ahead of the clash with Basel. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA
It is almost three years since his last Champions League goal and his mantle as fourth-choice striker is under threat from Michael Owen, yet Sir Alex Ferguson has denied he needs to repair Dimitar Berbatov’s confidence ahead of Manchester United‘s encounter with Basel.
Berbatov has been frequently overlooked on the big occasions by Ferguson, notably the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona at Wembley in May, and may be required for United’s opening home game in Europe this season. Wayne Rooney is a confirmed absentee with a hamstring injury, a problem with potential repercussions for England’s Euro 2012 qualifier in Montenegro on Friday week, so too Javier Hern├índez with a dead leg he sustained at Stoke City on Saturday. With Danny Welbeck also easing his way back from a hamstring tear it would represent another slight on the ┬ú30.75m striker not to be selected ahead of or alongside Owen, Federico Macheda or Mame Biram Diouf.
The 30-year-old has started United’s last two matches, the draw at the Britannia Stadium and the Carling Cup win at Leeds United, and perhaps that explained Ferguson’s irritation when pressed on Berbatov’s contribution to the Champions League campaign. “Of course he’s got a part to play. He’s one of our squad members and they’ve all got a part to play,” the United manager said. “There are a lot of games in the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup. It’s an exhausting season unless you use your squad.”
Ferguson utilised his resources in the opening group game at Benfica but left Berbatov on the bench throughout the 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light. He dismissed claims that his handling of United’s record signing may now include restoring the confidence of a forward who has not scored in the Champions League since a brace against Celtic in October 2008.
“I don’t have to reassure him,” he added. “He knows his place in the squad, and that applies to many players like Mame Diouf, Macheda and Michael Owen, they’re not playing regularly either. We’ve had six league games and the ones against Benfica and Leeds. It’s only early doors. There’s plenty of time.”
The United manager was unable to put a timeframe on Rooney’s recovery from the injury he sustained in training on Friday, when Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans also suffered knocks that kept them out against Stoke. Evans and Chris Smalling will both be missing against Basel due to respective ankle and groin injuries, and though Ferguson expects Hern├índez to be fit for the Premier League game with Norwich City on Saturday, the diagnosis on Rooney is uncertain. “He’s not playing tomorrow,” said Ferguson. “It’s difficult to assess a hamstring but I hope we get him back quickly. He did a bit of jogging this morning but that’s all. It’s difficult to say.” The Scot also revealed he does not expect Nemanja Vidic to return from a calf injury until after the impending international break.
In contrast to his downbeat assessment of Berbatov’s role at Old Trafford, Ferguson was effusive in his praise of Ashley Young following his ┬ú16m move from Aston Villa in the summer. The England international claimed the constant challenge of playing for United had already brought an improvement in his game and that it would be a “dream” to make his Champions League debut against the Swiss side.
Ferguson added: “Ashley has brought a great awareness of the game and fantastic endurance from box to box, which is something we’ve enjoyed from Ryan Giggs for many years. He has integrated very well and there is a good application in his training. He’s done very, very well.”
Basel currently top Group C courtesy of a 2-1 home win over the Romanian champions, Otelul Galati, in their first game and have lifted the Swiss title for the past two seasons under the management of Thorsten Fink, the former Bayern Munich midfielder who came on as a late substitute against United in the 1999 Champions League final. It will take more nights like Barcelona, and not defeats in the final by them, however, before Ferguson considers this a golden European age for his club.
The United manager said: “I think the Champions League is the best competition in the world, better than the World Cup and the European Championships. But it’s not a golden period for us because we’ve lost two finals.
“We’ve been consistent in the Champions League and our form away from home has been outstanding. I hope we can do better this year and win it because that’s the aim of this club all the time.”