Dimitar Berbatov has twice been on the losing side in UEFA Champions League finals and hopes there will be a third time lucky in 2010. First, though, he and Manchester United FC must overcome the club he supported as a boy – AC Milan.
United face Milan in the first knockout round, playing the first leg at San Siro on 16 February, and although Berbatov has experience of that famous ground it has not been against the Rossoneri. "I have played against each big club in the world, but I've never played against Milan – I am very excited," the striker told UEFA.com.
The tie assumes an extra dimension for the Bulgarian international, given he followed Milan as a youngster. "Yes, I was a fan, because Marco van Basten was playing there," he said. "I was a big admirer of him, a great player, one of the greatest forwards ever. That's the reason I was for AC Milan, just because he was playing there."
Sir Alex Ferguson's team have encountered these same opponents in two knockout ties in recent seasons, going out on both occasions. Their last meeting was a high-octane 2007 semi-final which Milan won 5-3 on aggregate, and Berbatov accepts the Italian giants are never to be underestimated.
"It will be a great game," he said. "Some people say they are not in the best shape, but I think that's deceiving. In the Champions League everybody is different. I know they will prepare very well for us. There's no favourite: it's 50-50."
While many top players have never sampled European club football's showpiece event, Berbatov ticked that box at the start of his career, featuring in Bayer 04 Leverkusen's 2-1 final loss to Real Madrid CF in 2002. "I was on the bench and thinking this is like every other game," he added. "I was a kid back then, but then the coach said 'warm up' and my heart was going to blow up."
He made a second appearance last term for United, and although that final ended in defeat too, he feels his chance of claiming a winner's medal has not passed him by. "Two times, two losses for me and then you have players who have won it, like, four times. But I'm glad I had the opportunity to play at the highest level. I want to be there again and I'm sure we will be."
Winning the UEFA Champions League is something Berbatov has "dreamed about all my life", but at the age of 29 he is even more aware of the trophy's significance. "When I was in my first final, I was 19 and I didn't pay much attention to that stuff. But then when you look back you are like, come on, not so many players have the chance to play in the Champions League final. So, the second time, when we lost against Barcelona, it was very disappointing."
A game of already fine margins, a final only accentuates the details according to the former PFC CSKA Sofia and Tottenham Hotspur FC forward. "It's about who is the smartest, who is the clever one, who can use the mistake of the other team and just score the winning goal – that's pretty much the difference."
In 2002 it was no mere moment of magic that undid Leverkusen; it was one of the iconic images of the UEFA Champions League. "Zidane with that volley with his left foot – unbelievable goal – and to score it in the final of the Champions League!"
Now, though, he is convinced United have a side that can deliver glory in Europe's premier club competition. "Everybody is supporting each other – when you look left or right, you see a player who can help you. And of course you have the boss as well, who knows how to motivate you." After two near misses, and facing the team of his favourite player, Berbatov may have all the motivation he needs.
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