Alex Ferguson's Dimitar Berbatov gamble begins to pay off
Liverpool – a desperate team trying to revive themselves with a brand of clockwork football that at times made them look like refugees from an alien planet – were submerged by a Dimitar Berbatov hat-trick that could only have come from a natural-born goal-scorer of the highest quality.
Berbatov's astonishing re-incarnation as a striker of bite and sometimes breathtaking skill – his second goal, an overhead kick that might have earned a glance of admiration from Rudolph Nureyev, left Liverpool rolling against the ropes – has come with brilliant timing for Ferguson, who otherwise might be reeling under the impact of that restated force by champions Chelsea.
Give-away draws at Fulham and Everton told an alarming story of eroding defiance and clear focus in defence and there was a point here when the flurry of anxiety had become a full-scale indictment. That was when Steven Gerrard twice scored set-piece goals in the second half after Fernando Torres, with scarcely a scrap of sustained support, had utterly undermined the confidence of first Jonny Evans, then John O'Shea.
Ferguson claimed that if the sudden, "farcical" deadlock had not been broken by Berbatov's third goal, a lordly header, near the end we would have been looking at a travesty of a result. Yes and no, you have to say.
Yes, United had created a ridiculously easy control over their traditionally fierce rivals when Berbatov performed his Bolshoi cameo for the second goal early in the second half.
Yes, Luis Nani smashed a shot against the woodwork after, quite stunningly for him, staying vertical despite the close presence of a Liverpool defender. But, no, the "cricket score" Ferguson said he was anticipating was not guaranteed, neither by United's disconcerting habit of going missing in defence nor the sense that Wayne Rooney is continuing to look, at least in United colours, as though his head, and quite a bit of his heart, is an extremely long way away.
It means that a huge burden has attached itself to a player who last season seemed to see a scrap of responsibility pretty much as Dracula reacted to a brandished cross. Not any longer. Berbatov is fired with a ragingly revived belief in his power to conjure danger in front of anyone's goal and his statistics this new season are beginning to resemble a tidal force: six games, six goals. His strikes have been accompanied by an array of subtle skills and an increasingly ravenous appetite.
Rooney can only look on wistfully at such easily produced mayhem. He had the same brutal touch of an executioner last season before his football – and his life – began to unravel and yesterday it seemed – rather as it did against Rangers in desultory Champions League action early in the week – that the best he could do was go through the motions and hope that something he did from memory caught a little fire.
Mostly, he produced a mere ember or two; some beautifully measured long passes, a break or two of some menace, but in the close work, those situations which in better days he used to burst open with irresistible menace, there was a growing sense of futility.
For Ferguson, Berbatov's consistent menace is certainly the lifeline which he needs if United are to attach themselves to the heels of the rampant Chelsea.
After the goalless draw with Rangers, the manager's main regret was that he had not called upon Berbatov when he fielded a young team with Mexican contender Javier Hernandez running, rather insipidly, alongside Rooney. "In close situations," Ferguson sighed, "Berbatov might have broken something open. He is playing so very well."
Much too well, certainly, for the team Roy Hodgson has patched out of the legacy of Rafa Benitez and his own necessarily modest investment. When Berbatov was on the march it was a salvage operation which, frankly, seemed sharply the wrong side of adequate. Torres was sharp enough to win the decisions that enabled Gerrard to shoot Livepool back into the game. David Ngog also brought a little weight of purpose when he came into the action late on, but the truth Hodgson has to grapple with is that for most of the time his resources seemed to belong to a much lower order.
As the agony of the ownership saga drags on, the most feared possibility is coming to pass. The Benitez regime, which created its own problems beyond the constraints imposed by the financial limitations, increasingly failed to paper over the cracks, and the same was true of Hodgson's efforts yesterday. Liverpool simply no longer looked as though they belonged in the higher class of football company.
But for Berbatov's sustained scoring touch, Liverpool may indeed have escaped the worst repercussions that come when you are being completely outplayed. Indeed, when Gerrard guided in his free-kick with the assistance of United's collapsed wall he ran to the Liverpool corner of the stadium with the raised finger which marked his celebration of Liverpool's 4-1 triumph here the season before last, back when the promise was, finally, of a serious challenge for the title.
The hard truth is that there were times yesterday when that might have been a 100 years ago. The resulting pain can only have been marginally eased by the fact that United, even with Berbatov blazing, did not appear to be exactly locked into sure-fire upward mobility.