The swagger of Dimitar Berbatov at his elusive best

The swagger of Dimitar Berbatov at his elusive best

This feature is part of Virtuoso

Dimitar Berbatov was an often polarising figure when adorned in the red of Manchester United. Loved eternally for his passion towards the club, the cause and whatever they stood for, he was often lambasted for his carefree style, with players and fans often calling him lazy.

There is no doubt, though, that when he was up for it, he was amongst the best in the English top-flight and a lethal weapon to have in the arsenal. With a plethora of goals and legendary moments on his CV while playing for the Red Devils, he is still a fan-favourite, but one moment stands out far and away from the rest: the match against Liverpool on 19 September 2010.

Having joined the club in the 2008/09 season, it wasn’t until two years later that he truly began establishing himself in Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans. With United having failed to win the league title in the previous season, forcing themselves to watch Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea revolution succeed, the Scottish manager was adamant on reclaiming his esteemed prize and live up to the promise he made of toppling Liverpool as the country’s most successful team. So when the Reds from Anfield themselves came to visit early in the 2010/11 season, Ferguson and United could make their plans clear and send out a message to the rest of the Premier League.

The Bulgarian started the season strongly but it was this afternoon at Old Trafford that solidified his resurgence and justified the fee that his manager had paid for him in two years before. United started the game strongly and were by far the more dominant side in the first half. Despite lacking several key players in defence they held their own and threatened Liverpool but it wasn’t until the end of the half that they would draw first blood. The Reds were the creators of their own downfall as poor marking from a Ryan Giggs corner set Berbatov free and the forward tucked the ball in with an angled header.

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The goal was as simple as the player who scored it, however, that couldn’t be said for the next. Going into half-time with an advantage, United were just as strong in the second period. However, there was a rather frantic 15-minute phase that would be both beneficial and detrimental for both sides.

First, United would double their lead with a sumptuous goal from Berbatov. The move started from the right side with Nani sending in an awkward, high cross in the hope of finding Wayne Rooney in the box. But with the England forward proving to be too short for it, a shout was made by his partner in attack, stood just a metre behind him. What happened next was perfection.

As the ball dropped from the heavens, Berbatov controlled it with his right thigh, giving it a touch of elevation and, within a second, with his back facing goal and as he stood just around the penalty mark, he would unleash a flabbergasting overhead kick that would go in off the crossbar, leaving Pepe Reina and the rest of the Liverpool back line hopeless. Undoubtedly one of the best goals of that season, it was also the forward’s finest moment in a United shirt and he could not have chosen a better opponent for such an extravagant strike.

Speaking about the moment a few years later, the player himself expressed his astonishment: “I controlled the ball with my thigh. I would be lying if I said I did this intentionally. The ball was falling, and my thigh was the best option. The decisions were made in nanoseconds. It was automatic; I didn’t think about it. And the way it went in off the bar and down made it more cool. By the roar of the crowd, I knew it was in.”

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The joy wouldn’t last very long. Through a capitulation of the United defence, they would give away two cheap goals, both from set-pieces. The first, a Steven Gerrard penalty, came just five minutes after Berbatov’s magic on the other end and the second, a well-placed free-kick from the midfielder, drew Liverpool level. At that moment, with 20 minutes left to play, gaining a point would have been a fine result for Roy Hodgson’s team. They had struggled until that point in the season but this memorable fight back would have been a good return following a troubled start to the game where they were easily exposed twice.

However, on an afternoon where every single one of Berbatov’s touches had turned to gold, he would have a final one that would settle all scores and swing the pendulum back in Manchester United’s favour. With six minutes of normal time left to play, this goal was another header except, this time, he would tower over the Liverpool defence.

Coming in from a cross from the right side by John O’Shea, he would beat the challenge from Jamie Carragher and comfortably place the ball into the bottom left of Reina’s net to become the first United player to score a hat-trick against their fierce rivals in 64 years; the first since Stan Pearson in 1946’s 5-0 win.

Two well-taken headers and an overhead kick to make one’s mouth water were worthy of stadium-wide applause as Berbatov was substituted just minutes after scoring the winner. The three goals showed everything that forced his manager to fork out nearly £30m for him: grit, swagger and a killer instinct. This was undoubtedly the Bulgarian’s finest hour donning the red of Manchester United. The game that wrote his name into cult-hero status at the club and the game that still allows the United faithful to hold his name in high regard.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tewani26

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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