Five-star Berbatov too hot to handle as United turn on style
Man Utd 7 Blackburn 1
In Manchester United's last league game, he could not even make the match-day squad but against an insipid Blackburn Rovers team yesterday, Dimitar Berbatov was lethal, scoring five goals not only to send his team to the top of the table for the first time this season but also erasing Chelsea's goal difference advantage in the process. For team and player, it could be the defining performance of the season.
Until this game, United had made hard work of their unbeaten start to the season, not delivering the kind of stylish performance that had characterised previous title-challenging teams at Old Trafford. The mental toughness was there but the physical grace was not. Inspired by Berbatov, and invited by Blackburn's incompetence, United delivered the kind of display their season had been waiting for.
They haven't lost in 29 games and now they start playing well. "It all came together today," Ferguson said. "It was a fantastic achievement for Berbatov."
It took just 72 seconds for Berbatov to get started. Paul Robinson had come out to challenge Rafael da Silva and collided painfully with the United right-back. He managed to get back to his goal-line but was clearly still struggling. Meanwhile, Nani had picked up the ball and sent in an inswinging cross on which Rooney got a faint touch.
Berbatov, getting ahead of Pascal Chimbonda, steered the ball in with Robinson out of position. Park ji-Sung was next up, a one-two with Wayne Rooney, and a cute chip to beat Robinson. Blackburn's defence was poor but they were being given no screening cover from the midfield.
With 27 minutes played, the game was well and truly over. Chimbonda, who had an awful afternoon, was put under pressure by Rooney as he looked to pass the ball out from left-back. Berbatov had anticipated the Blackburn defender's backpass and when Chimbonda undercooked it, the Bulgarian striker had all the time he needed to smash the ball past an exposed Robinson. Blackburn incompetence spilt into humiliation immediately after the break, as United rattled up another couple of goals before some fans had settled back into their seats.
United's fourth, and Berbatov's hat-trick goal, was the best of the day. Berbatov started it all, working it forward in tandem with Patrice Evra on the left. Looking up, he spotted Nani's run on the right and hit a superb outswinging pass into the winger's path. Nani cut back inside Chimbonda and played across the box for Berbatov, driving forward, to finish.
A minute later and Nani humiliated Chimbonda again cutting back inside the full-back after taking Anderson's pass and bending the ball around Robinson.
The only question now was how many more United could be bothered to score. Luck deserted Blackburn for fear of association. When Park's shot was blocked in the area, the ball fell to Berbatov, who calmly trapped and finished despite being surrounded by Blackburn defenders.
With 20 minutes to go, Anderson played him in after surging down the middle and when Ryan Nelsen blocked his cross, the ball fell kindly back to his feet and he passed the ball in at the near post. That was seven and Berbatov's fifth.
"Overall our performance was brilliant," said Berbatov, the fourth player to score five goals in a Premier League game, after Andy Cole, Alan Shearer and Jermain Defoe.
"I don't think anyone could have guessed the score before the game but people but must have been pleased. I have scored five before but it was a long time ago back home in Bulgaria. To do it in the Premier League and stand next to Alan Shearer and Andy Cole is a great honour."
Berbatov was obviously the star, but there were exceptional performances from Nani and Anderson. There was also an improved display from Rooney, who took a worrying knock to the knee in the first half, who combined impressively with Berbatov.
"Of course it is good to have Wayne back," Berbatov said. "He knows how I play and I know how he plays and we understand each others' games well. We showed that on the pitch. We work hard on the training ground and try to do on the pitch. Sometimes it just works out and it did today."
Nothing worked for Blackburn. This has been a season of the middle-ranking clubs getting into the ribs of their supposed superiors; here there was only cringing compliance, unusual for a Sam Allardyce team. Rovers did score a goal with seven minutes to go, Samba heading in Josh Morris' cross. He had the dignity not even to think about celebrating.