Dimitar Berbatov scored five goals as Manchester United thumped Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford to take the Premier League lead for the first time this season. The Bulgarian hadn’t scored in 10 matches but put the drought behind him in emphatic style and became just the fourth man in the Premier League era to score five in a match.
Rooney was again the focus of attention before the match, with the 25-year-old striker seeking his first goal from open play this season but the former Evertonian was thoroughly upstaged by Berbatov, whose own position in the United team is under threat. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson dropped the 29-year-old for last week’s fixture with Wigan Athletic.
Yet this was a match in which all the constituent parts came together for United after a series of underwhelming performances this season despite the unbeaten start. The Reds finishing, passing and especially movement were better than at almost any time in the past five months.
Remarkably United now lies top of the Premier League table by two points, having also hauled in Chelsea’s previously large goal-difference advantage to boot.
“We’ve been waiting for that performance for weeks,” Ferguson told Sky Sports News.
“We kept saying our rhythm and tempo was not good enough in the last few weeks, but today it was, we’ve found it and it’s pleasing to get it at this time of the season.”
“It was a fantastic achievement. He [Berbatov] could have scored six too because Paul Robinson made a fantastic save near the end.
“When strikers are not scoring they don’t think they are doing their job right. That has always been the case. Today it came back.”
With Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher absent through injury, Ferguson handed a start to Anderson in central midfield. The 23-year-old Brazilian has missed much of the campaign through injury, illness and poor form.
If Berbatov was under pressure to perform, then perhaps no more so than the £17 million former Porto midfielder who has so rarely justified the price-tag in three years at Old Trafford.
But Anderson was central to United’s opening goal inside two minutes, catching Rovers’ goalkeeper Paul Robinson in a challenge and enabling Berbatov to profit once the cross was delivered – the Bulgarian poking home Nani’s cross on just 72 seconds with Robinson poorly positioned.
Neater in possession today than is often the case, Anderson put in the type of box-to-box performance that so impressed United supporters when the player first arrived in Manchester.
Rooney was heavily involved in United’s second, exchanging passes with Park Ji-Sung before the South Korean lifted a finish over Robinson for his fifth goal of the season. It has largely been a poor season from Park but his goals tally is now equal of any campaign in more than five years in Manchester.
Pascal Chimbonda gifted Berbatov a second – and United’s third – moments later, with a laughably poor backpass towards Robinson before the half-hour was up, with the Bulgarian gleefully taking the chance.
Four more followed in the second half, with Blackburn no less impotent in the first and United in a mood not often seen at Old Trafford recently. Berbatov added a fourth and his third – a second hat-trick of the season – from 12 yards shortly after the half-time break. The interplay between Evra, Berbatov and Nani as sweet as anything produced by United this season.
Nani drove home an individual fifth just moments later, before Berbatov added his own fourth and fifth of the afternoon before 70 minutes was up.
That United failed to make double figures for the first time since the 1950s was a factor of some excellent goalkeeping by Robinson – not before time – and inevitably the hosts’ intensity dropping a notch.
Berbatov is often accused of seeking artistry over output but can delight in his contribution today. If the Bulgarian’s five haven’t put to bed questions about his Old Trafford future, they’re certainly a weapon in the 29-year-old’s armoury come potential contract negotiations next summer.
“I can’t believe it. I scored five in a game but it happened,” said the former Tottenham Hotspur striker.
“I have scored that many before but it was a long time ago back home in Bulgaria.
“Today I did it in the Premier League. The first goal was the most important, it gives you the confidence to play.
“As a striker, people do tend only to look at the goals you score. I am more concerned with how I play but today was all about goals for me.”
Yet for all the goals, Berbatov’s combination play with Rooney was the most striking aspect of the afternoon. Not always noted for their understanding, the pair offered a dynamic pairing and a sign of the genuine threat any all levels United could offer in forward areas.
If only each could find consistency and fitness on the pitch, together with some stability off it.
And with Berbatov’s personal goal demon slain, what hope Rooney will achieve the same sooner, rather than later?
United – 442 – Van der Sar; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic (Evans 64), Evra; Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Park (Obertan 72); Berbatov, Rooney.
Blackburn – 4141 – Robinson; Salgado, Samba, Nelsen, Chimbonda; Jones; Emerton (Linganzi 52), Dunn, Goulon (Hoilett 28), Diouf (Morris 52); Roberts.
Attendance – 74,850
Man of the Match – Berbatov
Possession: United 59% – 41% Blackburn
Attempts: 15 – 3
On Target: 11 – 2
Corners: 5 – 2
Fouls: 6 – 6