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Wishing upon a star

26 September 2012

Dimitar Berbatov shouldn’t be at Fulham. He has played at Bayer Leverkusen, Spurs and Manchester United. He very well *should* still be playing at United, or have moved on to Fiorentina or Juventus, two other pursuers with more cachet.

Yet, there he was, resplendent in Fulham’s handsome “third” kit (the one they wore in a Premiership match before their designated orange change strip. Merchandising, for the win) dashing around the pitch at the DW Stadium, serving up a delightful cross for the opener and generally spearheading a rare-and-satisfying Fulham away victory. Two starts, two wins, two goals and one peach of an assist, and Fulham fans have every reason to be in love with the new No. 9. For a club ransacked at the transfer deadline of their midfield guile, Berbatov provides hope. Every time he’s on the pitch. Every time he touches the ball. Something good probably will happen. Something magical may happen.

This is not quite to the level of the LeBron-fueled Cavs or the David Robinson-led Navy team that made the Elite Eight in the late 1980s. The former had (very arguably) the best player in the world, while the latter’s supporting cast was nowhere near the level of Fulham’s veteran assemblage. Still, even if Berbatov isn’t quite at his peak, he’s still world-class, still a star, still able to do things on the pitch that most pros cannot. Fulham very rarely has stars, and that’s what makes this rooting experience a new one to those relatively new to the club.

Simply put, Berbatov gives Fulham relevance. Talking heads can’t stop bloviating about his class or what a steal his transfer price was or why Sir Alex pushed him out the door. He’s the focal point, almost lazily so, of any preview and most other stories about Fulham. He also brings casual coolness to a side that’s generally regarded as harmless and vanilla. When Wigan keeper Ali Al Habsi made an excellent save to deny Berbatov what looked like a certain goal, the look on Berba’s face was priceless. It was as if a martini bar waitress had just turned down his offer of dinner. He looked perplexed, amused and disgusted at the same time … and still very cool.

Where Berbatov is similar to LeBron and David Robinson and any other one-star team is that he makes mostly anything seem possible, whether it be during a match or in the bigger picture. Down a goal? We have Berba, so we have hope. Season aspirations? Fulham aren’t going to qualify for the Champions League, but can they pip seventh and a Europe League invite? How about an FA Cup run to Wembley? Will his presence make the team more inviting in the January transfer window, where a creative midfield type looks at how Berbatov creates space and chances for his teammates in addition to potting goals and decides he wants to run this show?

Berbatov is a player who elevates everyone, like a post man who commands a double-team or a pass-first point guard who can’t be kept out of the lane. That cannot be overstated in evaluating just what Fulham will be this season, and what they possibly can be beyond that. It also has salvaged this campaign from a rooting standpoint. A few weeks ago, as the deadline window slammed shut with Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey on the other side, this season seemed to be one of transition, with nary a hope of actually competing for anything great. The four months until January, when hope is often hopelessly overpriced, seemed too long to bridge for a patchwork side with no creativity.

Enter Berba, who gave a taste of his ability in the second half of the fiasco at Upton Park and hasn’t stopped shining since, even as a de facto No. 10 who’s also responsible for acting as a pass outlet, spraying balls around to the wings, and tracking back defensively. The all-around game probably won’t continue in this amount of fullness (especially as other options get healthy), but it’s a sign of Berbatov’s commitment to a club that stars don’t commit to. Credit Martin Jol for working the relationship, ownership for signing off on whatever his weekly salary is, and for Berbatov himself to treat his first two and a half games as if he is still playing for a world-class side.

Maybe this will be the only season for Berbatov at Craven Cottage; I believe his deal has an option for next season, but equally likely is a wink-wink understanding that if a choice club comes for him, Fulham will sell and profit. If it is, I’m going to enjoy every moment of it. It’s rare when magic falls into your lap. For Fulham fans, every Saturday now gives you an additional reason to smile, and a new reason to dream.

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