Dimitar Berbatov: Bulgaria's shy pacesetter

AS Monaco FC's Dimitar Berbatov has quietly attained something like legendary status in Bulgaria after years of goalscoring; UEFA.com's Stoyan Georgiev gives credit.

With Dimitar Berbatov closing in on Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgarian record of 35 goals in UEFA Club Competition; watch the AS Monaco FC star in action.

On 10 April 1991, Hristo Stoichkov struck twice for FC Barcelona as they came from behind to beat Juventus 3-1 at Camp Nou in the first leg of their European Cup Winners' Cup semi-final. It was one of the landmark performances that made Stoichkov's name in Europe.

Just over 24 years on, Dimitar Berbatov is taking on Juventus with AS Monaco FC in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals; should the 34-year-old score twice in the second leg, he will overtake Stoichkov's tally of 35 and become the highest-scoring Bulgarian in UEFA club competition. For a player who spent the early part of his career in Stoichkov's shadow – each having made the breakthrough at PFC CSKA Sofia – relieving the most celebrated Bulgarian talent of another record may be cause for quiet satisfaction.

"I think we played a perfect game," said Berbatov after his side's 1-0 loss in the first leg. "Juventus had their chances, we had ours. I think we still have an opportunity to go through. We prepared hard for this game, but unfortunately we lost. I expect us to do well in Monte Carlo and win."

The six-goal joint golden boot winner as Bulgaria reached the 1994 FIFA World Cup semi-finals, Stoichkov's place in national football history is secure. Injury robbed him of the chance to become the first Bulgarian to appear in a UEFA final in that 1990/91 campaign – Barcelona would lose the Cup Winners' Cup decider 2-1 to Manchester United FC – but he claimed that honour a year later when the Catalans beat UC Sampdoria in the 1992 European Champion Clubs' Cup showpiece.

Stoichkov celebrates a Bulgaria goal
Stoichkov celebrates a Bulgaria goal©AFP

And while Stoichkov lifted another European trophy – the 1997 Cup Winners' Cup – with Barça, by contrast Berbatov has not won any, boasting the unhappy record of being the only Bulgarian to lose UEFA Champions League finals with two different clubs: Bayer 04 Leverkusen in 2002 and Manchester United in 2009. Yet if his career has not had the extreme highs of Stoichkov's, the publicity-shy Berbatov has nonetheless made a modest legend of his own.

The 34-year-old is the Bulgarian national side's all-time leading marksman with 48 goals. He might have also eclipsed Stiliyan Petrov's caps record of 106 had he not given up international football in 2010 after 77 matches. In UEFA club competition terms, meanwhile, he is far and away the appearance record holder in both the UEFA Champions League (61 games) and all competitions (87).

Stoichkov, though, remains the man with the most European club goals to his name (18 European Cup/UEFA Champions League goals, 35 in all competitions) – but then he did spend seven years at Barcelona whereas Berbatov's former teams Tottenham Hotspur FC and Fulham FC were not always guaranteed continental action.

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci is therefore wary of the Monaco No9 who, if not possessing Stoichkov's charisma, maintains an enduring reputation as a centre-forward par excellence. "Monaco's best weapon is the counterattack and Berbatov is one of the best strikers in Europe," said Bonucci, in the midst of the clubs' UEFA Champions League quarter-final.

And the best striker in Bulgarian history? Well, almost, it seems.

Dimitar Berbatov with his runners-up medal after the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League final
Dimitar Berbatov with his runners-up medal after the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League final©Getty Images
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