Tale of 2 strikers as United prepares for Fulham
LONDON (AP) -On the day Manchester United picked up a striker for the future, manager Alex Ferguson warned his players of underestimating a forward from the club's past in Saturday's FA Cup match against Fulham.
Dimitar Berbatov, a languid and graceful Bulgarian who left United in the offseason, couldn't be more different to Wilfried Zaha, the strapping young Englishman who Ferguson snapped up from Crystal Palace on Friday.
Yet, the 31-year-old Berbatov remains one of English football's most gifted players and will be Fulham's go-to player in his first return to Old Trafford in one of two all-Premier League fourth-round matches.
"Berbatov is Fulham's best player. I don't think he was a failure here,'' Ferguson said of a player who was joint-top scorer in the Premier League in the 2010-11 season.
"At his age, it's not easy to be not playing when I have lots of choices (in Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck). He wanted first-team football and it was the right thing to do. I think he's doing well there.''
Berbatov has scored seven goals in the league this season and has been prepared to work hard for Fulham - something he was criticized by some United fans for not doing.
He is capable of producing something out of nothing and that could be crucial Saturday, with Fulham expected to be put under serious pressure at the home of the Premier League leaders.
"He can't do it on his own,'' Fulham manager Martin Jol said. "If we get a good day there, maybe we could end up with a surprise and you never know, hopefully he will come up with something out of the blue.''
United has more FA Cup titles (11) and more appearances in the final (18) than any other team, but hasn't reached the showpiece match since 2007.
"We haven't done as well in the FA Cup for a few years now,'' Ferguson said. "It's a cup which has fantastic appeal, given our record in it. We have the benefit of the home draw. We'll take that any time.''
Manchester City, which is vying for the league title with United, also faces Premier League opposition in Stoke - the team City beat in the 2011 final to end a 35-year wait for a major trophy.
Mario Balotelli could be in line for a first start for City in six weeks, with manager Roberto Mancini dismissing speculation that the Italy striker will be leaving the club this month. AC Milan is one of the teams to be linked with a move for Balotelli.
"It is not true, Mario stays here,'' Mancini said Friday. "We didn't have any requests about Mario or other players.''
City beat Stoke 3-0 in the Premier League on Jan. 1 but hasn't won at Stoke in any competition in 14 years.
"We are prepared for a physical battle,'' said City defender Matija Nastasic, a Serbia international and former Fiorentina player. "We will have to work on defending the long ball into the box ... In Serbia and Italy, there are no teams like Stoke - they are a product of English football and that is their identity.''
The rest of the Premier League's top sides have matches against lower-league opposition, with Arsenal facing arguably the most treacherous test when it travels to the south coast to play Brighton.
Brighton, which is seventh in the second-tier League Championship and coached by former Chelsea and Uruguay midfielder Gus Poyet, eliminated Newcastle in the third round.
Also, Chelsea and Liverpool have away matches against third-tier opposition in Brentford and Oldham, respectively.