DIMITAR BERBATOV continued in his role as the big success story of the new Manchester United season although his defensive colleagues are still showing a penchant for self-destruction which could yet unhinge the club’s title bid.
After throwing away leads against Fulham and Everton already this season, it appeared United were to repeat their lackadaisical play, handing two set-piece goals to Steven Gerrard after Berbatov had handed them a 2-0 lead inside an hour.
Yet Berbatov completed a hat-trick that rescued United from what was threatening to be another defensive catastrophe. With six minutes to play, Paul Scholes found John O’Shea on the right and his perfect cross saw Berbatov outjump Jamie Carragher and head into the Liverpool goal.
“It was a game we absolutely dominated. At 2-0, it could have been a cricket score. At 2-2 it was an absolute farce,” United manager Alex Ferguson said. “I was saying to myself, ‘It could’ve been 10,’ so when it looked like ending 2-2, it would have been a travesty of a scoreline, but it was a great result at the end.
“They had the momentum when it went to 2-2, but they never offered anything, did they? They had to depend on decisions from the linesman to get back into the game. Van der Sar hasn’t had a save to make.
“Scholesy was controlling the tempo in midfield and we looked dangerous up front with Berbatov and Nani in particular. I couldn’t see us losing.”
But lose – or, rather, draw – they so very nearly did and that would have been an affront to a magnificent display from Berbatov. The Bulgarian, singled out for praise by Ferguson in the pre-match build-up, continued in the vein of form described by his manager and had been an influential figure even before he claimed the opening goal four minutes before the interval.
Berbatov won the telling corner with a cross from the right then, with the assistance of some shoddy marking, he cleverly found the space to stoop and guide a header past Pepe Reina from six yards from Ryan Giggs’ cross, a finish he made look far easier than was indeed the case.
Berbatov’s second, just before the hour mark, was far more memorable and seemed to have effectively killed off the contest.
The move started with a sublime pass from Darren Fletcher which found Nani near the right-hand corner flag. The winger cut in before chipping over a cross which Berbatov, back to goal, controlled on his knee before placing into the goal, via the crossbar, with an audacious overhead kick.
“The second goal was unexpected, a surprise attempt,” a smiling Ferguson said. “Not many of those end in the net but fortunately it did today.”
The Berbatov brace was the minimum United deserved and the only surprise was two goals were all the home side had to show for a first hour of domination.
But two minutes later, Liverpool halved the deficit after Jonny Evans slid in and brought down Fernando Torres as he made a rare burst into the United area – Gerrard calmly beating Edwin van der Sar from the penalty that correctly followed.
That was a break Liverpool could scarcely have foreseen as they struggled yet United’s worrying trend of throwing away leads continued.
After 68 minutes, John O’Shea was judged to have brought down Torres as he sped towards the United area and Gerrard, again, placed the free-kick through the home side’s wall and past van der Sar from just outside the box, a finish which left major question marks over United’s defending once more.
Such a comeback had earlier seemed inconceivable, such was United’s power going forward. Nani screwed an early shot just wide and Ferguson’s men seemed to grow in confidence after Berbatov’s first.
There were strong appeals for a United penalty after Christian Poulsen’s backwards header appeared to strike Carragher’s arm and Rooney ended the half with a low shot from just outside the area which was not far from the target.
The second half opened with Liverpool finally showing more enthusiasm to attack their hosts although the first chance again fell for United as Fletcher’s long-range shot took an awkward deflection and looped up, almost falling for Berbatov on the six-yard line before Reina gathered. O’Shea’s short pass also created an angle for Nani to unleash a blistering shot which beat Reina only to thunder against the Liverpool woodwork after 56 minutes.
Three goals followed, inside 10 minutes, and set up an intriguing finale which was finally, and fittingly, settled by the best player on the field.
“We are certainly in a transitional period. I don’t think that should be seen as a negative per se, they can be very good for a club,” claimed Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson. “The task has been complicated because I haven’t had a lot of time to get to know the players because of the World Cup and with the Europa League qualifiers the competitive football has come quickly.
“But we’ve lost two league games to (Manchester) City and United away. At the moment, realistically, perhaps we need to say that’s going to happen and we have to get better to make sure that doesn’t happen again in the future.”
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