x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Berbatov back with a bang for Manchester United with hat-trick

The top-scorer of last season fires three in 5-0 win against sorry Wigan.

Dimitar Berbatov on a rare outing for Manchester United last season.
Dimitar Berbatov on a rare outing for Manchester United last season.

MANCHESTER // The rewards for winning the Golden Boot do not tend to include marginalisation, but then there has always been something strangely different about Dimitar Berbatov. The Premier League's top scorer last season has been a peripheral player in the current campaign.

But on a day for understudies, the Bulgarian offered a belated reminder of the talent that produced 21 goals last season.

By scoring a hat-trick, he took his tally to four goals in five days, enabled Manchester United to go level on points at the summit with Manchester City and gave their goal difference a welcome boost.

Their last four games have been won by an aggregate score of 16-1; their last nine have yielded 25 points. Beat Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and they will return to the division's summit. Yet if the statistics suggest a side hitting top gear, the team sheet almost indicated a reserve-team XI.

But, shorn of 10 injured players and with their first-choice goalkeeper and premier scorer named among the substitutes, the fringe figures who had underperformed in both the Carling Cup and the Champions League excelled in the Premier League.

When Sir Alex Ferguson defends his much-maligned squad players, it is afternoons like this he will have in mind.

Wigan Athletic had drawn with Chelsea and Liverpool, but there was to be no third deadlock.

A goal behind after eight minutes, a man down before the break, they were overcome and overwhelmed.

United played without a specialist centre-back for 45 minutes and with only two recognised defenders for the whole match. It hardly mattered, not least because Wigan's lone striker was sent off in the first half.

Conor Sammon's crime was clumsiness, rather than malice. His arm connected with Michael Carrick, but it was not a deliberate elbow. Nevertheless, the referee Phil Dowd opted for the most draconian punishment and brandished the red card.

"I'm gobsmacked," said the Wigan manager Roberto Martinez. "It is a shocking decision. There is nothing malicious. Berbatov uses the same technique in the box to score a goal and that's allowed." A sympathetic Ferguson conceded: "I didn't think it was intentional."

But Sammon's departure was the start of pivotal couple of minutes, Berbatov doubling United's lead shortly afterwards.

But they were already ahead, Park Ji-sung sweeping a shot in after Patrice Evra had sashayed to the bye line.

The 11 men had conceded one, the 10 let in four, three of them to Berbatov. It was just his second league start of the campaign. "He's not had the best of starts to the season in terms of selection," Ferguson said.

"So I'm really pleased for him."

The first two goals were the product of glorious turns, to baffle the two Wigan centre-backs, Antolin Alcaraz and Gary Caldwell, respectively, followed by rasping finishes. His treble was completed from the penalty spot after Alcaraz tripped Park. Before then, Antonio Valencia, the supplier of the third goal, scored the fourth with an angled drive against his former employers.

A winger by trade, he was filling in at right-back, epitomising the resourcefulness and the goal threat of his side.

"What they achieve as a team is what every team wants," Martinez said. "They can react towards the adversity you find in football. Probably the biggest strength Manchester United have had in the last 25 years has been that mentality."

And mentality and ability can be a lethal combination.