Dimitar Berbatov’s rejuvenation continued as his brilliant hat-trick gave Manchester United a fully deserved win against Liverpool at Old Trafford.
The Bulgarian striker scored either side of the interval – the second a stunning overhead kick – to put Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in complete control against a subdued Liverpool.
Liverpool were thrown a lifeline by United’s frailty in defence as Steven Gerrard scored twice in six minutes midway through the second half from the penalty spot and a 20-yard free-kick, both awarded for fouls on Fernando Torres, to put the Merseysiders in sight of an unlikely point.
Berbatov was determined to have the final say, however, and he scored his and United’s third with a towering header six minutes from time to seal the victory.
Ferguson will be delighted with United’s attacking play, but once again lapses in United’s defence threatened to throw away the good work from Berbatov and company further forward.
Liverpool, for so long locked up in a defensive shell, will be frustrated to lose a point late on, but boss Roy Hodgson saw his team come out as distinctly second best for long spells.
United were forced into a late change when Rio Ferdinand withdrew because of illness, while Liverpool were able to bring back Joe Cole after his three-game Premier League suspension.
The pattern was swiftly established as Manchester United’s greater possession and territory was confronted by dogged defensive resistance from Liverpool.
Nani had an early opportunity to force Liverpool into a greater show of ambition when a brilliant interchange between Wayne Rooney and Berbatov left the Portuguese winger with space and time in the area, but he dragged an angled finish well wide.
Liverpool’s patchy response consisted a long-range effort from Glen Johnson that flew harmlessly across the face of goal.
Just as it looked like Liverpool might survive until the interval unscathed, they were architects of their own downfall as Berbatov took advantage of poor marking at a set piece to give United a 42nd minute lead.
Torres was the culprit, losing Berbatov in the battle to make contact with Ryan Giggs’ corner, the Bulgarian powering a header past Pepe Reina.
United, encouraged by the goal, pressed for another and Rooney was then narrowly off target from the edge of the area.
Liverpool continued to be pushed back after the break, and rode their luck after 56 minutes when Nani cut into the area and unleashed a powerful effort that bounced back off the outside of an upright with Reina beaten.
It was a brief reprieve as Berbatov scored a stunning second goal to extend United’s lead. Nani’s cross was behind the striker, but he brought the ball under control and swept an overhead kick past Reina via the underside of the bar.
Liverpool looked on course for a long and painful afternoon at the hands of their fierce rivals, but they were given hope after 64 minutes when Jonny Evans fouled Torres in the area, allowing Gerrard to dispatch the penalty with ease.
And a remarkable turnaround was complete six minutes later when John O’Shea was booked for fouling Torres on the edge of the area. The defender was arguably fortunate to escape a red card from referee Howard Webb, but Gerrard inflicted further punishment as he slipped a free-kick through a poorly assembled United wall and past Edwin van der Sar.
Berbatov had given a masterclass in the striker’s art, and fittingly he completed his treble when he headed United back in front with six minutes left, soaring above Jamie Carragher to glance O’Shea’s cross past Reina.
And this time there was no chance for Liverpool to recover – or for Manchester United to squander a lead once more.
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