Dimitar Berbatov fired Manchester United to victory over rivals Liverpool on Sunday, with his first ever hat-trick for the Red Devils, helping United overcome a second half fight-back from the Merseyside outfit to secure victory and keep up the pressure on league leaders Chelsea.
Following last week’s meltdown at Everton, Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in the match-day programme that he was looking for improved concentration from his side, as he hoped they could bounce back and defeat their old rivals. In contrast, Roy Hodgson was hoping to finally get the best out of his team against top quality opposition. Following an inconsistent start to the season, he wanted to put one over his old friend Ferguson.
But it was Ferguson’s side that looked more dangerous in the first half, as Liverpool looked desperately short of creativity. United bossed the opening exchanges, pegging their rivals back in their own half, while Liverpool struggled to keep the ball, and gifted possession to United seemingly on purpose.
With Torres isolated in attack, Steven Gerrard subdued, Maxi Rodriguez (again) invisible, and Joe Cole failing to get a foot-hold in the game, United continued to dominate their opponents.
However, they failed to create any real openings until a flowing passing move from saw Berbatov feed Rooney, who in turn freed Nani in the box. The Portuguese winger cut inside, but took too long to get a shot away, before a Rooney effort was deflected back into his path.
However, Nani snatched at the chance and pulled it wide of Reina’s post when he should have at least hit the target.
Liverpool’s relief was still overshadowed by their disappointing performance. Their failure to hold onto the ball continued to emphasise the mistake former manager Rafa Benitez made when he sold Xabi Alonso, and Steven Gerrard’s tendency to drop deep in a bid to create chances for the Reds negated his attacking presence.
In fact it was Glen Johnson who had their only chance of the half, firing a shot wide of the United goal after a short corner. The right back’s effort emphasised Liverpool’s lack of creativity and imagination, as Paul Scholes controlled the tempo of the game against his younger counterparts, and new captain Nemanja Vidic marshalled the threat of Torres brilliantly.
Again United pressed, and they were finally rewarded with 42 minutes gone. Nani again teased Konchesky, and his cross was headed behind for a corner. From the resulting set piece, Berbatov broke free of woeful marking by Torres to head past Reina and put United in front at the break.
Torres failed to get in front of his man, and made little attempt to do so, allowing Berbatov to head home, highlighting the remarkable changes in fortune for both men. The Bulgarian, largely criticised throughout his United career, is beginning to justify his £30m price tag, while the previously deadly Torres is feeding off scraps for Liverpool and looking increasingly frustrated.
Some have questioned Torres’ motivation, and it would not be unfair to suggest he looks a shadow of his former self. While at times he appeared disinterested and unmotivated, he was also isolated, and controlled well by Vidic, and a striker without service often cuts a sorry figure up front.
Without service, it is very difficult for Torres to get in the game; whether this is affecting his mind-set is unknown, but questions will no doubt arise over his future at Anfield while he continues to struggle to find his form.
The second half began the same way as the first. United’s performance was assured, confident, and controlled; a world away from the patchy and inconsistent displays against Fulham, Everton, and Rangers. United looked a cut above their rivals, who were failing to find any sort of opportunity in the match, and they emphasised their dominance not long after the break.
The ever-dangerous Nani cut in from the wing and hammered a shot at goal, only to be denied by the woodwork. Reina was well beaten, but the post came to his rescue. It was a warning of what was to come, but Liverpool were failing to match their rivals in all departments of the game.
Torres continued his exile in attack, while Berbatov and Nani were a constant source of trouble for the Liverpool backline. The new midfield partnership of Raul Meireles and Christian Poulsen struggled with the pace of the game, clearly demonstrating how much Liverpool missed the now-departed Alonso and Javier Mascherano.
Scholes and Darren Fletcher were clearly in charge of proceedings, and it was the latter who played a delightful pass to begin the move for United’s second goal, a work of real beauty. His 50 yard pass was collected by Nani, whose cross dropped behind Berbatov. The former Tottenham man took one touch to control the ball before firing home a majestic overhead kick to put the game seemingly out of Liverpool’s reach.
It truly was an exceptional effort from the rejuvenated Bulgarian, and an early candidate for goal of the season. His technique was flawless, the finish was perfect. His world class effort sent the fans into a frenzy, and the Red Devils looked set to romp home.
There was only one winner at this point, and Ferguson himself said he believed United could go on to score ten. However, the Theatre of Dreams, still rocking from Berbatov’s stunner, was silenced just minutes later.
Jonny Evans, a late replacement for the ill Rio Ferdinand, scythed down Torres in the box, and suddenly Liverpool were back in the game. The linesman awarded the foul, with Howard Webb possibly believing the Spaniard had overrun the ball on first glance, but there was definitely contact with Torres, and United could have little complaint about the decision.
Until then Steven Gerrard had been a spectator, but he calmly dispatched the penalty with ease, giving Liverpool a way back into the match.
Five minutes later, they were level. Again Torres’ pace and movement caused trouble, as he was fouled looking to get on the end of Meireles’ through-ball. O’Shea was the culprit this time, and Liverpool felt that he should have seen red for a professional foul.
In truth, the pass was slightly over-hit, and there was little question that Edwin van der Sar would have beaten Torres to the ball. Webb looked to have made the right decision by awarding just a yellow card, but that did little to please Liverpool’s fans.
Instead, that duty was left again to Gerrard. His freekick was poor, but Fletcher inexplicably moved from his duties in the wall, creating a gap, thus allowing the ball to go through the wall into van der Sar’s net.
United had again given away a two-goal lead against opposition from Merseyside, and were almost caught out for a third when Meireles headed wide from a hopeful long ball. Old Trafford was rocked, and Liverpool looked to capitalise.
Instead, their attacks continued to fizzle out. It was no surprise that both their goals came from set pieces, as they hardly troubled the United backline in open play. They could consider themselves highly fortunate to be on level terms judging by the difference in performances, but were on course for a point, however undeserved it was.
Unfortunately, Berbatov had other ideas. O’Shea dinked a cross into the box, and Berbatov comfortably out-jumped Liverpool stalwart Jamie Carragher, to nod home the winner, scoring his first hat-trick since 2007 in the process.
It was no less than he deserved, as another brilliant performance proved the catalyst for United’s success. With Wayne Rooney still struggling to rediscover his form from last season, Berbatov has filled the void excellently, and richly deserved his standing ovation when he was withdrawn with a minute to go.
This time, Ferguson would have been delighted his side did not throw the game away, as they easily played out stoppage time to secure a big win against the old foes. A mixture of delirium and relief was spread across Old Trafford, but there could be no question that they deserved the win. Roy Hodgson saw his team comprehensibly outplayed, and they were very fortunate to come away having lost by just a goal.
Liverpool failed to create any real chances from open play, and Hodgson will be back to the drawing board, hoping for improvement before their next game. It is very difficult to see them breaking back into the Champions League on this form.
United, meanwhile, bounced back from two successive draws, to keep the pressure on early leaders Chelsea. There is plenty of time left this season, and as everybody has seen in recent history, it would be very unwise to rule out Ferguson’s side. However, defensive frailties were again exposed; the imminent return of Rio Ferdinand will likely help this issue.
On the whole, it was an excellent team performance, blighted by five poor minutes, and the Red Devils should be pleased with their efforts. They will have to build on this, and eliminate the errors and lack of concentration from their game, but they look ready to mount another title challenge.
Dimitar Berbatov took the match ball home following an exceptional performance. He said of his performance, “It was probably my best day in a United shirt. I am happy. I am going home with a smile on my face but I am nothing special. I am going home to play with my kids”.
He may believe that, but very few could argue that his second goal was not anything special. It was very special indeed, and capped a terrific display from the striker that led United to victory over their old rivals.
Now they can focus on trying to win their 19th title, putting another one over Liverpool.
Manchester United: Edwin Van der Sar (6), John O’Shea (5), Nemanja Vidic (9), Jonny Evans (5), Patrice Evra (6), Ryan Giggs (6), Nani (7), Paul Scholes (7), Darren Fletcher (6), Dimitar Berbatov (10), Wayne Rooney (6)
SUBS: Federico Macheda, Darron Gibson, Anderson
Liverpool: Pepe Reina (6), Glen Johnson (6), Martin Skrtel (6), Jamie Carragher (5), Paul Konchesky (6), Joe Cole (4), Maxi Rodriguez (3), Raul Meireles (6), Christian Poulsen (4), Steven Gerrard (6), Fernando Torres (5)
SUBS: David Ngog (5), Daniel Agger, Milan Jovanovic,
REF: Howard Webb (5) – Not his best game, with several inconsistent decisions. Strangely waited for the linesman to award the penalty, but he made the right call with O’Shea’s yellow card.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United)