Paul Parker

Berbatov brilliance fails to mask soft underbelly

Paul Parker

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The big criticism often levelled at Dimitar Berbatov is that when it really matters he is nowhere to be seen.

The problem has been of course, considering
his price tag, that he is expected to stand up and be counted in the big games.

Until Sunday's game at Old Trafford, he had
not. But his hat-trick against Liverpool changed that and finally started to
repay some of the £30 million Alex Ferguson paid for him two years
ago.

It's impossible not to have been impressed
by the Bulgarian's three goals which single-handedly beat Manchester United's
bitter enemies.

Forget about Liverpool's current plight and
position in the league; this was a big game. It always has been and it always
will be, such is the rivalry between the two clubs.

Yet Berbatov stepped up to the plate in fine
style, becoming the first United player since Stan Pearson in 1946 to score a
hat-trick against Liverpool. You can't argue with that
stat.

Berbatov seems to be revelling in the
deterioration of Wayne Rooney's form and consequently being promoted to playing
the role of number one striker, like he was at Tottenham.

He now appears confident enough to emerge
from Rooney's shadow, where he had hid pretty much all last season, and United
are finally reaping the benefits.

Berbatov has everything Untited fans love:
bags of natural ability and what it takes to turn a game in the blink of an eye
with something out of the blue. Eric Cantona and Teddy Sheringham were two
others of a similar ilk.

His second goal spoke volumes for his
undeniable talent - the improvisation to control the cross and pull off an
overhead kick was magnificent. You don't learn something like that; you're
either born with it or not.

Berbatov's task now is maintain that kind of
form. It's all about consistency from now on. He's proved what he can do in a
big game but it won't mean much if he can't repeat the
feat.

He's not the first United player to go
through a difficult time but he's handled it well. He's never hit back at his
critics, never lost his cool with the fans and never stopped believing in his
own ability.

But while Berbatov was claiming the plaudits
for his match-winning display, events at the other end of the pitch were
concerning.

A combination of individual error and
complacency once again threatened to deprive United of the
points.

After passing up on the opportunity to put
the game again Fulham to bed with Nani's missed penalty then losing a two-goal
lead at Everton, United looked like they were again going to drop two points by
allowing Liverpool back into the game at 2-2.

Jonny Evans's naivety in hauling Fernando
Torres down was worrying and Darren Fletcher's break from the wall to allow
Steven Gerrard's free-kick through was just poor.

Neither incident will have pleased Sir Alex;
he said himself that there was no way Liverpool should have been in the
game.

Yet after those two goals, they were and if
it were not for Berbatov, United would have been contemplating another two
points dropped which they can ill afford in this season's title race,
considering the blistering pace Chelsea have set.

The difference at the moment between United
and the champions is their ability to kill games off. Chelsea are doing it with
consummate ease - look no further than their 4-0 first-half lead against Blackpool at the weekend -
while United are really struggling to keep their concentration for a whole 90
minutes.

United are conceding far too easily from
dead balls and from crosses - and unless that is rectified quickly, for all
Berbatov's brilliance up front, they will find it difficult to maintain the
pressure on Chelsea.

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