Dimitar Berbatov recorded a hat-trick in his first practice game with his new club, Monaco. Claudio Ranieri, the coach, had arranged that the Tuesday session would consist largely of work on one of the full-sized pitches at the club’s La Turbie site, cut into the rock overlooking the Mediterranean coast.
They played 12 against 12, without goalkeepers and with only headed goals allowed; then, a more orthodox 11 against 11, in which the new man struck his three goals, although with one of them amicably disputed on the grounds it looked offside.
So, a promising start to Berbatov’s French adventure, launched at the end of January with his transfer from Fulham, who dropped to the bottom of the Premier League a few hours after he said farewell. Officially, the deal was a six-month loan.
In effect, it was goodbye Craven Cottage, as his contract with the London club expires in June, which is when his stint with the second-placed team in France’s top flight also finishes. But should Berbatov, 33, take a liking to his new surroundings, and Monaco deem him right for the next phase of their well-funded climb up Europe’s hierarchy, an extension may be offered.
Broadly, two types of footballers are propelling Monaco, who were promoted to Ligue 1 only last May, towards Uefa Champions League status and, plausibly, to a tilt at the 2014 domestic title if they can overcome leaders and champions Paris Saint-Germain tomorrow evening.
There are the seasoned veterans, such as Berbatov, the thirtysomething defenders Ricardo Carvalho, formerly of Real Madrid, and Eric Abidal, lately of Barcelona, and the been-around-the-block France midfielder Jeremy Toulalan. Then there are the novices, like the teenager Anthony Martial, his fellow Frenchmen Eric Riviere and Valere Germain, and the Argentinian Lucas Ocampos.
Between those generations is the missing presence at La Turbie at the moment: the striker Radamel Falcao, whose €60 million (Dh299m) transfer to Monaco last summer made a seismic declaration that the club’s owner, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovyev, nursed ambitions to make Monaco compete with the big-city European super clubs.
Falcao ruptured a knee ligament in the third week of January, and so the club’s leading scorer this season will miss the remainder of the campaign. Berbatov effectively replaces the powerful Colombian.
Like for like forwards, they are not. Falcao is direct; Berbatov’s game has always prized imagination above acceleration; his languid style is sometimes deemed an expression of an excessively casual approach. In his best days at Bayer Leverkusen, or Tottenham Hotspur, and for spells at Manchester United, where he finished the joint-top marksman in the Premier League in 2010/11, that was misleading.
Yet he had not been in inspiring form at Fulham from August to January, as the Monaco vice president Vadim Vasilyev, acknowledged, talking to France’s RMC radio.
“This season hasn’t been one of his best,” Vasilyev said. “He didn’t feel good at Fulham. But last year he scored 15 goals, and in the Premier League, that tells you something.
“He’s got experience and we need that because we have young strikers like Martial who need to listen to players with plenty of experience. He has complementary qualities to the strikers we have in our squad. You see sometimes when the tension grows in games, we need someone with his sort of qualities.”
Vasilyev, the right-hand man to the very private Rybolovyev, had last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Lorient in mind as he spoke. Monaco twice fell behind before recovering a point, as the gap between them and PSG in the table stretched to six points.
Ranieri will pause before thrusting Berbatov straight into the starting XI for the visit of PSG, but the first glimpses of sharpness the Bulgarian provided in training have encouraged the worldly Monaco coach.
Sunday is a rare sell-out at the Stade Louis II, with PSG’s superstars primarily responsible for the higher ticket sales. Another elegant former Premier League star, Yohan Cabaye, signed by the Paris club from Newcastle United last month, could make his first league start for the visitors.
As ever, PSG will be spearheaded by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of whom, a little like Berbatov, it used to be said that a languid style and maverick streak prevented him being ranked among the great forwards of his generation. As Ibrahimovic closes in on a second successive award as Ligue 1’s top scorer, that idea looks more and more old-fashioned.