It's Highfield Road in the winter of the 1993-94 season and Manchester United are toiling. Because of that, Roy Keane is raging. With the score at 0-0 and an hour gone against Coventry, most of his anger is aimed at Eric Cantona. While the rest of the team is battling, Cantona appears to be coasting. Then, as Keane put it himself, "just when exasperation was being expressed, Eric produces a bit of magic to turn the game. He'd seize half a chance, and bang."
That goal was one of the 22 'game-changers' Cantona got across Manchester United's two double seasons of 1994 and 1996. They lifted his legendary status at the club to a clincher as well as a catalyst. The 1995-96 season was particularly impressive since, leading a young team, Cantona scored the solitary goal in five of United's six games across March and April to win 11 points (see panel right) and overtake Newcastle United. For all that, his creative influence brought things together at Old Trafford in 1992-93, it was those double seasons that really illustrated the unique ruthlessness all champions require; the exact ability that elevates the effort of top teams from that of those beneath them. Not the quantity of a player's goals, but the quality of their effect. How many points they directly deliver. As Keane also emphasised, "you stood and fought and waited for the class of Eric to kick in".
Last Tuesday, with Manchester United struggling at Blackpool, Dimitar Berbatov finally appeared to confirm a similar sort of class. Granted, the comparisons with Cantona have been lazily repeated since the day he arrived at Old Trafford. But they were always more to do with his style rather than strikes. Indeed, another of Keane's descriptions of Cantona applies perfectly. "He didn't exactly put himself about when we were working to win the ball back. Often we'd give him a bollocking for not tracking back. We certainly did more than our share of running for him."
Given the fact that his lethargic appearance came with a £30m price and broke up the electric, all-action strike trio of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, it's remained one of the easiest accusations for Berbatov's critics to throw at him. That he doesn't look like he wants it.
His backers, however, have always maintained that – just like Cantona – such appearances are deceptive. As long ago as Ireland's 2009 game against Bulgaria, Alex Ferguson's brother and scout Martin was overheard at Croke Park avidly defending Berbatov to detractors. The other Ferguson argued the Bulgarian is on the ball as often as anyone that runs more than him but gives it away much less. In short, that he makes everyone move rather than actually marking games as his own.
Now that he has finally started doing so at United with those 19 league goals so far this season, there remains one legitimate complaint. Those strikes have come in only nine of Berbatov's 20 league starts this season. So he's failed to score in over half his games. Since so many of those goals come in gluts and, as such, only exaggerate wins, he remains too undependable.
But, looking closer, there is still a quality to that quantity. What is overlooked is that Berbatov got the key first of the game in both his five-goal haul against Blackburn and his recent hat-trick against Birmingham. In all, his goals have directly won 12 points this season. Looking across Europe and recent Premier League history (see panel right), that's an awfully high amount for 20 appearances – a rate of 0.6 points a game. And the majority have come in the last two months, suggesting the start of a trend. Tuesday at Bloomfield Road looked like the kind of night when inevitable champions are anointed. With nothing going right against Blackpool, Berbatov enforced his will to first transform the game and then win it. Much like Cantona.
In between, Javier Hernandez equalised. Six of the young Mexican's seven league goals this season have been integral. Much like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. And all that with last-season's main match-winner Rooney still struggling for goals. Of course that will only remain irrelevant so long as Berbatov and Hernandez keep it up.
Chelsea's key scorers haven't, which explains their interest in Fernando Torres. Last season, Didier Drogba claimed a frighteningly high amount of clinchers. Fifteen of his 29 goals produced a remarkable 22 points. For that, you'd forgive a lot of the moaning. By contrast, Frank Lampard's goals weren't as important as their exact tally implied. But he's more than done it before. In Jose Mourinho's two title wins, Lampard was Chelsea's most important scorer as he charged forward from the tip of midfield. The wrong side of 30, both have so far succumbed to injury and illness this season. Florent Malouda's input, meanwhile, has deteriorated with Chelsea's form.
Torres then would be ideal. For all the justified complaints about his performances, he remains a remarkably clinical scorer. Around 75 per cent of his goals are game-changers and that's a rate that's even been maintained this season. Winning 11 points, he's contributed over a third of Liverpool's 32.
On a similar level, Arsenal must be revelling in Robin van Persie's return. They know the value of a genuinely authoritative goalscorer. As much as their 'Invincibles' season was the peak of a team's evolution, Thierry Henry's individual effect was statistically the greatest in Premier League history. With his goals providing 26 points in 34 games, only the brilliance of Leo Messi surpasses him this season.
However, the closest to Henry was Rooney last season. And he only got as far as April. Once his ankle gave way, so effectively did United's title charge. It was the first time a Ferguson team had been so dependent on one goalscorer since the Ruud van Nistelrooy days of 2002-03. The 2007-08 Ronaldo team had many more dimensions and angles of attack. This year, Berbatov and Hernandez have eased the burden. At the moment, the Bulgarian isn't too far behind those proven greats (see panel above). Surprisingly, Cantona is. But another crucial difference: most of his game-changing goals came at intense points of the season when the allowance for misses was the most unforgiving.
With Chelsea threatening a charge, Carlos Tevez still dangerous and Arsenal seeing Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas return to aid Samir Nasri, Berbatov is going to have to keep it up to properly emulate Cantona. Blackpool, at least, was fine work to build on.
Some goals are bigger than others
Points won by game-changing goals
Much has been made of the fact many of Dimitar Berbatov's 19 goals this season have come in gluts rather than a consistent basis. What is most important, however, is whether those goals translate into points. To find out how genuinely effective Berbatov is, we counted up how many 'game-changing' strikes he has actually got so far this season. These are goals that were integral to a draw or victory – and not, say, the third in a 5-1 win. The exact amount of points Berbatov's strikes directly won were then calculated. So, for example, his second against Blackpool in midweek turned the score from 2-2 to 3-2 and was thereby responsible for two points. To properly compare with other marquee goalscorers this season and in the past, however, those points were divided by the number of games he has played this season. As can be seen, he compares very favourably and isn't quite the flat-track bully he's been made out.
Goals Game Points won Average
changing due to those points won
goals goals per game
Carlos Tevez 14 8 13pts 0.62
Dimitar Berbatov 19 10 12pts 0.6
Rafael Van der Vaart 9 7 9pts 0.53
Javier Hernandez 7 6 8pts 0.5
Robin van Persie 6 3 6pts 0.5
Fernando Torres 9 7 11pts 0.48
Tim Cahill 9 6 7pts 0.37
Florent Malouda 9 4 8pts 0.35
Samir Nasri 9 5 7pts 0.35
Darren Bent 9 6 7pts 0.32
Europe's most prominent marksmen this season
Leo Messi 19 8 14pts 0.82
Cristiano Ronaldo 22 10 15pts 0.75
Samuel Eto'o 12 6 10pts 0.59
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 12 7 11pt 0.58
David Villa 14 4 7pts 0.37
Recent seasons' prominent Premier League scorers
2003-04 Thierry Henry 30 18 26pts 0.77
2009-10 Didier Drogba 29 15 22pts 0.69
2010-11 Dimitar Berbatov 19 10 12pts 0.6
2008-09 Fernando Torres 14 11 14pts 0.58
2004-05 Frank Lampard 13 9 17pts 0.45
2005-06 Frank Lampard 16 10 15pts 0.43
2008-09 Steven Gerrard 16 9 14pts 0.41
2005-06 Thierry Henry 27 9 12pts 0.38
2009-10 Cesc Fabregas 15 6 9pts 0.33
2009-10 Frank Lampard 22 5 9pts 0.25
Previous Manchester United stars
2009-10 Wayne Rooney 26 15 24pts 0.75
2002-03 Ruud Van N'rooy 25 15 25pts 0.74
2007-08 Crist' Ronaldo 31 15 24pts 0.71
1998-99 Dwight Yorke 18 12 22pts 0.69
1955-56 Tommy Taylor* 25 14 20pts 0.61
2010-11 Dimitar Berbatov 19 10 12pts 0.6
1964-65 Denis Law* 28 15 20pt 0.56
1967-68 George Best* 28 14 22pt 0.54
1995-96 Eric Cantona 14 11 15pts 0.5
2008-09 Crist' Ronaldo 18 10 16pts 0.48
* adjusted to three points for a win