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Sep 19, 2010

Berbatov transition complete

There are moments when footballers become Manchester United players. They rarely involve signing a contract or posing with a shirt, either. For Cristiano Ronaldo, it came upon his debut with the series of stepovers that bewildered Bolton and enchanted Old Trafford; Wayne Rooney made an immediate impression when his first start brought a hat-trick against Fenerbahce.

• Manchester Utd 3-2 Liverpool
• Saturday's round-up
• Premier League gallery

To the delight of his admirers and the despair of his detractors, Dimitar Berbatov has long lived life at his own pace. The man who strolls where others sprint took the long route to arrive but, 25 months and 92 games later, he has got there. The most expensive player in the club's history has displaced Rooney as United's form striker and given definitive proof he belongs at the club. More significantly, he has defeated Liverpool, if not single-handedly then at least with a hat-trick that contained flair and, more surprisingly, force.

And, of course, he did it for a club who savour Liverpool's setbacks. Diego Forlan, otherwise a failure at Old Trafford, is still remembered in song ("He came from Uruguay; he made the Scousers cry") for a brace that owed much to goalkeeping error. No such generosity was afforded to Berbatov; none was needed either.

There have always been examples of the talent that tempted Sir Alex Ferguson to part with £30.75 million, the instances of technique and vision that lesser players can never possess. Yet the charge sheet includes a seeming indifference and a lack of goals in season-defining fixtures. In one fell swoop, that was remedied. The daddy of all derbies, as Ferguson has branded England's superclasico, was decided.

First he rose above his lacklustre marker Fernando Torres to head in Ryan Giggs' corner and somewhere in the Milan area, a man with a questionable beard and an infamous interest in facts may have reiterated the merits of his beloved zonal marking system as, while Torres' efforts at Birmingham were not (despite the opinions of a former Liverpool captain) 'diabolical', this was a dire attempt to halt Berbatov. In a league where conspicuous effort counts for much, Berbatov appeared to want it more.

His second goal was, to use Roy Hodgson's description, a work of "genius". Nani's cross was controlled on Berbatov's thigh, followed by a glorious overhead kick that went in off the bar. To score a goal-of-the-season contender in one of the year's defining fixtures is a mark of brilliance and Ferguson said: "I don't see many overhead kicks come off. It's a fantastic sight. It kisses the underside of the bar - marvellous."

Then, after Steven Gerrard had struck twice in a Liverpool comeback, Berbatov leapt above a static Jamie Carragher to head in John O'Shea's cross. It seemed uncharacteristically physical for the Bulgarian, a man who can resemble a black-and-white film star in the days of 3D action blockbusters. Yet it was a sign that he has adapted his game to become the unlikely alpha male of United's attack. After powering past Sylvain Distin to score last week, he is taking on centre-backs at their supposed strengths.

It was the first United hat-trick against Liverpool since Stan Pearson in 1946 and vindication for the man who authorised his purchase. While nevertheless omitting his costliest buy from many of the major fixtures, Ferguson has doubled up as Berbatov's bodyguard in the last two years, so often has he defended the Bulgarian.

Now vindicated, he said: "There was a lot of criticism from the media and it happens when you buy a player for a lot of money and he's not scoring a hat-trick every game. It happens. This season he has started in the right fashion. His pre-season has been very good, and there's never any doubt about the quality of the man. We've seen it again today."

Victory notwithstanding, Ferguson nevertheless seemed spoiling for a fight (a more diplomatic Hodgson was unwilling to accede) by seeming to suggest the result was "a catastrophe" for Liverpool and questioning the validity of their comeback.

Gerrard displayed admirable composure to halve the deficit from the spot after Jonny Evans tripped a turning Torres and he followed suit when he restored parity with a free-kick that pierced a faulty wall after O'Shea tugged the Spaniard back. Some felt the Irishman was unfortunate only to see yellow, but the United manager contended: "Definitely Torres made a meal of it to try and get the player sent off. They didn't offer anything. They had to depend upon decisions from the linesman to get them back in the game." Hodgson's was a fairer appraisal. "Our downfall was due to the fact we should have defended better for that third goal," the Liverpool manager said. That, and Berbatov's development from source of frustration to cause for celebration at Old Trafford.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Dimitar Berbatov - Deserves the award for the overhead kick alone. It was a special hat-trick to cap an outstanding start to the season and keep United in touch with Chelsea.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They were the better team, even if Ferguson's view that his side could have scored ten times is an exaggeration. Nani, who struck the post and got an assist, ensured the injured Antonio Valencia was not missed. That Javier Hernandez and Ji-Sung Park weren't even on the bench suggests their manager wasn't impressed with their displays against Rangers.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Five games in and they are already ten points off the pace. It is the product in part of a genuinely tough fixture list in a transitional time, but they are already playing catch-up in the quest for a top-four finish. Hodgson was critical of their defending from crosses throughout, and it cost them at the end. His side's was a performance that seemed to start with the intention of stifling, encompassed an unexpected comeback and ended with grounds both for optimism and pessimism.

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