With four rounds of matches to play before the end of European Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Bulgaria no longer have their fate in their own hands. If the eastern Europeans wish to reach next year's global showpiece, they must hope their rivals slip up while accruing maximum points themselves. That looks nothing short of a minor miracle, yet anything is possible when you can call on a player like Dimitar Berbatov, a striker with the ability to score a goal out of nothing and the coolest of heads in high-pressure situations.
Currently back in third spot in Group 8, six points behind Italy and five short of Republic of Ireland, Bulgaria have played one game fewer than their rivals. Even so, coach Stanimir Stoilov needs his captain in inspirational mood for the upcoming clashes against Montenegro and Italy, as well as October's encounters with Cyprus and Georgia. Only then can Bulgaria harbour hopes a qualifying coup on a par with Emil Kostadinov's dramatic last-minute winner in France in November 1993 which earned a place at USA 1994.
At the age of 28, Berbatov has already written his name in the annals of his country's footballing history. Forty-one goals in 67 national-team appearances have taken the Manchester United man past the legendary Hristo Stoichkov (37 goals) and just six short of all-time top scorer Hristo Bonev (47).
Elegant, not nonchalant
Spotted at an early age by former national-team star Dimitar Penev, Berbatov took his first steps on the footballing ladder at CSKA Sofia like so many Bulgarian internationals before him, as well as his father Ivan. Yet despite firing 14 goals in 27 games at the age of just 18, the elegant front-runner was unable to truly win over the CSKA faithful.
"The fact that my father was at the club before me didn't help my cause," said the striker, whose height makes him a threat in the air as well as on the ground. "On the contrary, people were jealous of me and I was given a much harder time. There was something about me that the supporters didn't like," continued a player whose artistry on the ball and languid style has also seen his commitment questioned since arriving at Old Trafford.
"I'm a perfectionist. Whatever I do, I want to do it well. I realise that can't be the case all the time but that's my goal. If we get close to perfection, then I'm happy," said the former Tottenham forward.
Klaus Toppmoller, who coached Berbatov during a successful spell at Bayer Leverkusen, said of the striker: "I tried to make him understand that goalscorers aren't much use if they don't score a minimum number of goals a season. He's more drawn to a beautiful piece of skill."
Berbatov himself admits this is the case: "I hope that people appreciate my passes as well as my goals, because sometimes I take more pleasure from a good pass than when I score myself. I love starting moves that lead to goals just as much as scoring." And what of those who criticise his hunger for the game? "I don't run when nothing's going to come of it. And I'm not particularly quick anyway..."
Yet the debate that rages among supporters contrasts sharply to the verdicts of those in the game, such as his ex-Spurs team-mate and England international Jermaine Jenas: "He's the best striker I've ever played with. There were times when I just wanted to stop playing and applaud one of his flicks or pieces of control. He's magnificent."
Glenn Hoddle, like Berbatov a former White Hart Lane icon and aficionado of the subtler side of football, is another member of the Bulgarian's fan-club. "He could be a playmaker if he wanted but for me he's best-suited to playing up front. That's because his playing style, which sometimes really slows things down, gives the midfielders a chance to join the attack. I don't know any other player in England who can do that. Over here we prefer explosive players who chase down whoever's on the ball."
However, things have not gone smoothly for the striker since his switch to Manchester United for a fee of £30.75m on the final day of the summer 2008 transfer window. Suddenly carrying the burden of a huge transfer fee and in competition for a starting place with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Bulgarian became a peripheral figure during his first season at the Theatre of Dreams.
At national-team level too Berbatov has also failed to spark of late, with a painful 6-1 friendly defeat against Serbia in November 2008 even leading to talk of a time-out from Bulgaria duty. Nor has the appointment of new coach Stoilov early this year brought about an improvement, with Berbatov guilty of lacklustre showings in Bulgaria's last four qualifiers and still yet to open his account on the road to South Africa 2010.
His renaissance may well be triggered at club level, however, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson admitting that "last season was a bizarre one for him and it's possible that we didn't use him properly". Also joining the list of backers was former Red Devils midfield dynamo Bryan Robson. "The time has come for him to step it up and show what he can really do. After the departures of Ronaldo and Tevez, United will be looking for other players to take charge and I'm sure he can fill that role."
"I can do better and I can do more," admitted Berbatov, whose return to form cannot come soon enough for Bulgaria. Starting with 5 September's meeting with Montenegro in Sofia, will their enigmatic captain be the one to fire them back into the hunt for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup?