Berbatov exposes Liverpool decline
The sight of Dimitar Berbatov in acrobatic goalscoring action graced the front of Manchester United's match programme complete with a message - some might even say a warning - from Sir Alex Ferguson.
"Off to a flier, Dimitar Berbatov has been unstoppable. More of the same is required today," wrote Ferguson ahead of the meeting with Liverpool, the game the Scot calls "the daddy of the derbies".
Berbatov did not just deliver more of the same, he did something Ferguson arguably relishes even more. He scored a brilliant hat-trick to give his manager the domestic victory he cherishes above all others - and the opportunity to indulge in a familiar pastime of Liverpool baiting.
Ferguson did not waste the opportunity to emphasise United's supremacy against a Liverpool side in the throes of what may be a painful transition under Roy Hodgson.
Ferguson was in full cry as he claimed Liverpool "didn't offer anything" (almost true) and "depended on decisions from the linesman to get back in the game" (not true at all).
Fernando Torres was also in the line of Ferguson's verbal fire for having the sheer audacity to be fouled by John O'Shea, while United's boss also suggested Liverpool's loss amounted to a "catastrophe". Not quite.
Liverpool and their supporters have certainly had better days than this. If waking up to the thought of Tom Hicks not only retaining his Anfield power base but expanding it was hard enough to stomach, the sound of the Laird of Old Trafford belittling them will have only added to the agony.
Ferguson, to some extent, had a point. The scoreline was the only thing that was close about this game as Liverpool were too average for too long in the face of United's greater attacking options.
Berbatov has struggled to make his mark at United following his £30m move from Spurs. Photo: AP
Berbatov's two goals either side of the interval - the second an overhead kick that was a triumph of technique and natural talent - put United in control until Steven Gerrard struck twice in six minutes to leave Liverpool in sight of a point they never deserved.
Gerrard's penalty and free-kick underlined the defensive weakness that still threatens to undermine United's season. Ferguson bristles at the suggestion that United have a frailty in this department, preferring to describe it as "lapses in concentration". Frailty it is and frailty it continues to be, no matter how he dresses it up.
Berbatov's towering header six minutes from time restored reality and gave United a 3-2 win - a final score that does little to reflect their overall superiority.
When Berbatov left the action with two minutes to go at the end of his masterclass, he was greeted by a thunderous Old Trafford standing ovation and a high-five from Ferguson. It was the successful conclusion to a two-year journey to acceptance at Old Trafford.
Often derided as lacking passion - an Eric Cantona-lite - Berbatov has cast off the shackles to become the player Ferguson thought he was paying £30m for when he arrived from Tottenham.
As at Everton last Saturday, Berbatov's entire performance was stamped through with world-class as he was too much for Liverpool to handle. He ignored the feeble attentions of Torres to head his first, juggled a Nani cross before bicycle-kicking his second then soared high above Jamie Carragher to complete his treble. A virtuoso display from a striker who has rediscovered his art.
So often lurking in the shadows when paired with Wayne Rooney, the languid Berbatov is now centre stage and the number nine shirt is finally a comfortable fit. No longer is he the player Ferguson was reluctant to turn to when the big occasions came along.
The narrow margin of United's victory - and their brief period of parity - appeared to give the Liverpool camp an artificial glow of satisfaction. A point would have been welcomed but the truth is it would only have papered over the cracks Hodgson is trying to repair.
Liverpool cannot kid themselves that they were almost United's equal. They lacked ambition for huge portions of this game, relying once again on the heroic Gerrard to act as inspiration, goalscorer, leader and just about everything else. Fortunately for Hodgson, it is a role the captain is used to and accomplished at performing.
The body language of the whole Liverpool side screamed from the first moment "what we have we hold" - the problem being they were not good enough to hold on to it. Too negative. No boldness until their hand was forced by United's lead.
Hodgson is at the start of a lengthy renewal. He needs and deserves time - and perhaps more importantly money - and is wise enough not to become a hostage to wild predictions about Liverpool being able to win the league, or, even more damningly, that they cannot win the league.
He will not say it publicly, and rightly so, but his chief objective is to restore Liverpool to the Champions League, with maybe the odd cup triumph as an added bonus. Early evidence suggests he has a formidable task achieving the any of those goals.
Liverpool's failure to deal with crosses from the flanks proved fatal against United, while the defensive partnership of Carragher and Martin Skrtel also looked vulnerable. Daniel Agger may need to be restored.
Raul Meireles and Christian Poulsen have barely got their feet under the table and were peripheral figures at Old Trafford. Poulsen's conservative passing, too often sideways, personified Liverpool's over-cautious approach.
Little of note came from the flanks, where Joe Cole was subdued and Maxi Rodriguez made himself scarce in a manner "The Invisible Man" would have envied.
Then we come to Torres, the striker who has almost become a national debating point.
He was light years away from the striker who reduced Nemanja Vidic to an ill-disciplined wreck when Liverpool won 4-1 at Old Trafford in March 2009. Vidic was the winner here, while Torres cut an isolated figure.
And yet Torres, even in his current reduced circumstances, invited the fouls from Jonny Evans and O'Shea that led to Liverpool's two goals. Such is the respect he commands from opponents.
Much has been said about Torres in the last seven days, the most damning being that he does not care and is not focused on Liverpool. Nonsense - to suggest any professional is lacking interest is a dangerous charge and certainly does not apply here.
The reasons for his off-colour displays may be far simpler. He is being starved of quality servicefor a start and there also appears to be an issue of mind and body. If Torres gives off one clear signal at present, it is that he does not quite trust his fitness after his recent injury problems.
What a contrast from that stunning Liverpool win at Old Trafford, when Torres took the plaudits and Berbatov emerged as a late substitute only to see the side led by Rafael Benitez humiliate United.
Here, it was Berbatov who took the honours. Ferguson ordered him to be unstoppable - and unstoppable he was.