When Alan Shearer sits out Newcastle United FC's UEFA Champions League match against Bayer 04 Leverkusen tonight after picking up a two-match ban for elbowing Internazionale FC's Fabio Cannavaro, no one will be more disappointed than the German side's forward Dimitar Berbatov.
"Shearer is a phenomenal striker," Berbatov told uefa.com. "His shot is so powerful, he is capable of scoring a goal out of nothing. His off-the-ball movement is intelligent and he is dominant in the air. He is a born leader and one of the greatest players in the world. He is a role model, not only for me but for thousands of boys."
Love at first sight
Berbatov first became aware of Shearer during the 1996 UEFA European Championship in England. Until that point he had supported AC Milan, and in kickabouts on the streets of his hometown of Blagoevgrad, he had always pretended to be Milan's great Dutch striker Marco van Basten.
For Bulgaria, EURO 96™ was the summer of loss, the tournament in which the 'Golden Squad' that had reached the FIFA World Cup semi-finals two years earlier forced their ageing limbs that bit too far. Bulgaria needed to win their last group game against France to make the quarter-finals but, with Hristo Stoichkov distracted by a personal battle with Marcel Desailly, they were beaten 3-1 at Saint James' Park, Newcastle's ground.
If most of his compatriots considered Newcastle a graveyard, though, it became the centre of Berbatov's footballing universe. After proving himself arguably the best striker in Europe that summer, Shearer moved to Newcastle from Blackburn for a then world-record fee of €23.3m. Since then, Berbatov has been a Newcastle fan, and has made a point of trying to watch the Magpies, and Shearer in particular, whenever he can.
Third time lucky
He has played against them once before, for PFC CSKA Sofia in a UEFA Cup tie in September 1999. "We lost the first leg in Sofia 2-0," he recalled, "but we played well and didn't deserve to lose. Then we drew 2-2 at Saint James' Park. I can still remember the great fans there."
The first leg was only Sir Bobby Robson's second game in charge, and his first victory. "They had had some domestic problems and Ruud Gullit was sacked after the derby defeat in the rain against Sunderland," he added. "But the managerial change also changed the team and they played extremely well in Sofia. They then became one of the major powers in English football.
That they are in the second phase of the Champions League speaks volumes."
Newcastle and Leverkusen, though, have begun the second group stage badly, both losing to FC Barcelona and Internazionale FC - defeats that, coupled with poor league form, cost Leverkusen boss Klaus Toppmöller his job. For both sides Tuesday represents a final chance in the tournament and that, Berbatov believes, could make the game a classic.
'We have to have a go'
"Both teams had problems in the first phase as well, but bounced back," he says. "Now both teams will have to go for the win. Of course, it will be almost impossible to pip Inter or Barcelona to first place in the group but we have to give it a go."
Newcastle will be without both Shearer and Craig Bellamy, who is also suspended, but Berbatov is well aware of the threat Robson's side will pose even without their first-choice strike pairing. "Of course the suspensions are good for Leverkusen," he said. "But Newcastle have other valuable players who are capable of winning any game."
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