x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Berbatov excelling in excellence

The forward has belatedly embraced the responsibility of leading Manchester United's front line.

Dimitar Berbatov, left, heads in his and Manchester United's third goal to clinch a dramatic 3-2 win against Liverpool.
Dimitar Berbatov, left, heads in his and Manchester United's third goal to clinch a dramatic 3-2 win against Liverpool.

The past is an ever-present at the most illustrious clubs. When a history is as rich as Manchester United's it informs the events of today and affords great deeds their rightful recognition. So it is no meaningless statistic that Dimitar Berbatov's hat-trick was the first by a United player against Liverpool since Stan Pearson's treble in 1946.

His was a career that straddled World War II and it was a different rivalry then: the game was played at Maine Road because of bomb damage at Old Trafford while United were under the helm of a recruit from Anfield, the former Liverpool wing-half Matt Busby. It is an implausible scenario now. Yet the fact that the subsequent 64 years had produced no such individual excellence was telling. The great United goalscorers - from Tommy Taylor and Dennis Viollet half a century ago to Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo more recently - were unable to leave such encounters with the match ball. Berbatov did.

In the framework of both game and title race, his third goal was the most crucial. In the context of a career, his second, a work of art, will be remembered longest. And yet, given the perspective the rest of Berbatov's time at Old Trafford provides, his first had a significance. It did not merely break the deadlock. It was Berbatov's maiden strike for United against Liverpool and, barring a late goal against Chelsea at the end of a 3-0 win in 2008/09 that merely impacted upon goal difference, a first in the league against opponents from the big four.

While some covet responsibility and others appear indifferent to it, Berbatov appears to have belatedly embraced it. In his 30th year, he has accepted a seniority that has been imposed, in part, because of Rooney's recent immaturity. Now he looks the leader of the line, the centre-forward who can rise highest and head hardest in a manner to delight traditionalists. There is a sense of purpose to accompany the divine touch, a new-found directness that seems a statement of new intent. Where once he sulked, now he soars.

Yet sandwiching his headers came an example of exquisite ability, a bicycle kick that, in its execution and importance, was reminiscent of Rivaldo's for Barcelona against Valencia in 2001. "A little bit of genius," Roy Hodgson said. "You don't see many overhead kicks come off, it's a fantastic sight," Sir Alex Ferguson added. "It kisses the underside of the bar; marvellous." His investment of a club record £30.75 million (Dh175m) in Berbatov has often been queried and some of Ferguson's most vigorous defences have been when his biggest buy has been at his most ineffective.

Ferguson 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." And, finally, Berbatov and United appear an ideal match. Ferguson's vision of the Bulgarian - seemingly as the new Eric Cantona - has been understandable even when it looked flawed. There was a romanticism to his recruitment, the feeling Ferguson was captivated before Berbatov was captured.

Berbatov and Manchester, however, should be a natural fit. He comes from nearer the Black Sea than Blackburn but there is something peculiarly Mancunian about the Bulgarian; it is not merely the pale complexion that suggests a man starved of the sun. Indeed, the seeming sense of melancholy is very Mancunian. This is a man who looks suited to the rain; he can construct beauty amid the gloom, both meteorological and psychological.

He has been United's own Joy Division, with the depressive undertones and the promise of greatness. And yesterday Berbatov produced his masterpiece. He tore Liverpool apart. @Email:sports@thenational.ae