Dimitar Berbatov became the first Manchester United player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool in more than sixty years as the Reds sealed a narrow win at Old Trafford. Berbatov scored United’s winner with five minutes to go to repay Sir Alex Ferguson’s impassioned defence of the £30 million striker.
Ferguson had earlier restored the Bulgarian to United’s forward line alongside Wayne Rooney after the midweek experiment with Javier Hernández. The Bulgarian’s four goals in all competitions coming into the match made the manager’s selection – and perhaps more importantly United’s formation – a little easier as the Reds momentarily closed to within a point of Chelsea.
With more than a hint of satisfaction, Ferguson heaped praise on Berbatov, who has now surely put his future at Old Trafford beyond all doubt.
“I was saying to myself it should have been ten but it ended up a 2-2. It was a travesty of a scoreline but a great result. They didn’t offer much, Edwin didn’t have a save to make, Scholes controlled midfield, Nani in particular was superb,” said Ferguson, who once again saw his side concede twice in the second half.
“The second goal was unexpected, it was surprise attempt and not many of those go in but fortunately it did today.
“There was a lot of criticism of him [Berbatov] last season and it happens when we buy a player for a lot of money. His performances in the pre-season tour were good but there’s never been any doubt about the quality of the man.”
As expected, with Antonio Valencia on the sidelines until at least February, Ryan Giggs started on the left with Nani switching to his favoured right flank. The Welshman had been suffering from the same bug that kept Rio Ferdinand on the sidelines for the match.
If United had lacked for creativity against Rangers during the week, then Berbatov and his strike partner set about setting the record straight, with the Reds starting brightly in front of a raucous Old Trafford.
But if Ferguson’s men were the only likely scorers then for much of the opening period United struggled to break down a sub-standard, if stubborn, Liverpool. Predictably Roy Hodgson’s outfit put faith in placing men behind the ball until circumstances force their hand.
Indeed, Ferguson’s side was equally happy to allow Liverpool’s five-man midfield to retain possession in their own half with the visitors rarely threatening to open United up during the first hour.
With space in open play at a premium United finally converted a set piece – the record from corners last season was laughably poor – with the Berbatov stealing ahead of Liverpool’s Fernando Torres to head home the opening goal. Reward for the Bulgarian’s endeavors this season and United’s overall dominance in the first half.
United should have doubled the lead before the break, with a strong shout for a penalty after Jamie Carragher handled and then Rooney firing just wide of Pepe Reina’s right-hand post.
Then, five minutes into the second period, Berbatov reacted first to Darren Fletcher’s deflected long-range only to stab a shot straight at Reina from eight yards out.
Berbatov then finally doubled United’s advantage, with the Bulgarian brilliantly finishing a sweeping United move to cap a fine individual performance. As Fletcher swept the ball left-to-right, Nani’s looping cross allowed Berbatov to control and fire home over his own head with half an hour to go. The big players should light up the grandest occasions and Berbatov is finally joining the elites in United’s squad.
If Liverpool’s limp performance had risked a rout then Jonny Evans gifted the visitors a way into the match, taking Torres’ legs from under him inside the area with Gerrard slotting home the spot kick. It was hardly the first time Evans has been at fault for United conceding this season. The Irishman’s talent is not in doubt but his application sometimes is.
Then moments later Liverpool equalised as Gerrard fired home a set-piece from just outside the area. This time Ferguson could lay the finger of blame elsewhere, with John O’Shea first hauling down Torres and then breaking the wall – albeit under the weight of Raul Meireles’ barge – as the visitors captain scored an equaliser that had looked so unlikely moments earlier.
If the comeback echoed United’s capitulation at both Fulham and Everton then Berbatov’s late winner ended any thought of potentially worrying series. It also, finally, wrote the Bulgarian his own piece of Old Trafford history.
United – 4-4-2 – Van der Sar; Evra, Vidic, O’Shea, Evans; Giggs (Macheda 82), Nani (Gibson 88), Scholes, Fletcher; Berbatov (Anderson 88), Rooney.
Possession: United 54% – 46% Liverpool
Attempts: 16 – 7
On target: 1 – 1
Corners 6 – 1
Fouls: 5 – 10