Berbatov proves he belongs at top table
Man Utd 3
United's hat-trick hero answers doubters by breaking Pool hearts
Ooh aah, Dimitar. Echoes of Eric Cantona imbued Dimitar Berbatov's majestic display here and it was not simply the touches of magic conjuring up a glorious overhead strike as the centrepiece of a fine hat-trick.
What should particularly thrill Manchester United fans is that the Bulgarian clearly now feels he belongs in the famous red shirt. He will be turning his collar up next.
As with Cantona, there are some instants when all the heat and dust of this mad sport, all the controversy and speculation, are stripped away and a moment of pure sporting genius shines through. Some great goals have spiced this season, from Gareth Bale's volley to Hatem Ben Arfa's drive, but what happened a shade before the hour mark here was truly exceptional.
United were leading through Berbatov's header, the forward having effortlessly eluded Fernando Torres to connect with a Ryan Giggs corner. They were in control, exploiting the initial lack of ambition in the Liverpool ranks.
Nani had taken a welcome break from play-acting, a stain on his otherwise excellent game, and was troubling Paul Konchesky, soon lifting in a cross.
Berbatov's response, standing with his back to Pepe Reina's goal, was sublime. Cushioning the ball on his thigh, he flicked it up and hooked it over his head and in off the crossbar. A split-second silence seized the Stretford End as fans shook the disbelief from their eyes, before an almighty roar erupted.
"Lots of questions were asked about him last season and he was made something of a whipping boy, to the point where he must have wondered whether he had a future at Old Trafford,'' Alex Ferguson had mused about Berbatov in his programme notes.
United's manager added that the club could have avoided "the aggravation'' if critics had simply asked whether Berbatov possessed the technical ability and strength of personality to be a United player. The technique has never been in doubt, simply the self-belief. Both qualities now etch his every move.
As United's No 9 has waxed this season, Liverpool's has waned. Well marshalled by Nemanja Vidic in a scrappy first half, Torres only showed signs of life when Roy Hodgson rejigged his team after Berbatov's gem.
David Ngog came on for the anonymous Maxi Rodríguez, Raul Meireles dropped back from his role in the hole and finally Torres enjoyed more support. Ngog's mere presence distracted Vidic and Co.
Old Trafford hit fever pitch. Wayne Rooney's nocturnal escapades drew caustic comment from the visiting Kopites. The Stretford End responded with a reminder of Liverpool's diary engagements for Thursday evenings.
The atmosphere had already been stoked pre-match by the DJ spinning a succession of hits from 1990, the last time Liverpool won the title.
This "daddy of all derbies'', as Ferguson called it, certainly lacked nothing in edge, although little venom discoloured the tackling.
Trailing 2-0, Liverpool were not diminished in spirit. Torres began making those old runs into the box, particularly attacking areas not protected by the outstanding Vidic.
Within four minutes of Berbatov's beauty, Joe Cole slid the ball towards Torres, who was brought down by Jonny Evans. For all Ferguson's frequent declarations of admiration for his young centre-half, Evans can get caught out. Ask Bobby Zamora and Tim Cahill. Rio Ferdinand, stricken with flu, was undoubtedly missed.
Steven Gerrard placed the ball on the spot and stepped back, waiting calmly while Howard Webb delivered a lecture to everyone else about encroachment, the referee resembling an experienced doorman dealing with an impatient queue of bargain-hunters outside a department store sale. When Webb was ready, Gerrard ran in and stroked the penalty unerringly past Edwin van der Sar.
With Fabio Capello watching, Liverpool's captain soon provided another example of his composure under pressure and his dead-ball prowess, equalising within six minutes.
When Christian Poulsen swept a low ball through the middle, Torres was off and running until brought down by John O'Shea on the edge of the area. Liverpool fans bayed for red and a few visiting players whispered such thoughts in Webb's earshot. The referee deemed yellow to be sufficient.
Liverpool's response should have been stamped 'Made in Melwood'.
When Meireles deliberately bumped into Darren Fletcher on the end of United's wall, the Scot overcompensated, shifting the other way and leaving a gap between him and O'Shea. Gerrard promptly swept the ball through the hole and into the net.
United had let another lead go, repeating events at Craven Cottage and Goodison Park, but this time they fought back, Berbatov rising to the rescue to head in O'Shea's cross. It brought United's first hat-trick against Liverpool in 64 years as well as victory.
For Liverpool, troubles persist on and off the field. Reflecting the scoreline, the boardroom is split 3-2 and Tom Hicks' new plans, seeking to buy out George Gillett, are sure to run into a three-vote roadblock of Martin Broughton, Christian Purslow and Ian Ayre.
Hodgson talked of Liverpool being a "team in transition'', and he clearly needs time, but four of these players were his recruits. Cole looks more effective centrally, Poulsen must be more positive in his passing, Konchesky can be exposed by pace, while Meireles requires a few weeks to pick up the pace.
Hodgson will also be aware that this is Liverpool, not Fulham, and a spirit of boldness is expected by fans. Some of the individuals he has inherited, notably Rodríguez, are simply not good enough. Liverpool's new manager could do worse than consider pushing Glen Johnson up the right and looking at Martin Kelly at full-back.
For United, victory could fully launch their season. Berbatov certainly has lit the fuse in style. (© Daily Telegraph, London)