I think the post-World Cup period is always difficult. We go from incessant excitement to, in my case, overload in the space of a month. The overload is for a number of reasons: everyone has an opinion. But the omnipresent Facebook-Twittering-I-just-had-a-milkshake status updating era has meant that everyone’s opinions have a platform. And long before the World Cup final (I hadn’t realised it yet) my interest in the game was waning. Why? The main reason isn’t simply opinions. It’s more the origin of so many opinions: hate.
And Dimitar Berbatov felt the unscrupulous glare of attention. Apparently he doesn’t run all that much (even though Opta stats shows he does). Apparently he doesn’t seem too interested. He doesn’t have passion. He doesn’t work hard. It’s tough to hear the faults of a team laid on one man’s shoulders. What makes Berbatov such an attraction for me is that his style is anomalous to the trend of the current game; he isn’t known for pace or strength. His talents are as much between the ears as they are in his feet.
I was interested to see Ferguson’s setup today – all of last season the Bulgarian missed out as he opted for a five man midfield and Rooney leading the line alone. This weekend however Berbatov was the form player. So it was a 4-4-2 from the outset and United started strongly, with Nani’s flank looking as though it would provide the crucial battle of the day (Nani v. Konchesky). What became apparent was a lot relied on Nani’s delivery (just like against Everton). Liverpool struggled to gain possession in the opening quarter of an hour but when they did, they built slowly and focused on trying to highlight the numerical disadvantage in midfield. United took the lead from a corner when Berbatov headed in at the near post – their only shot on target.
The second half became a much more competitive affair; Joe Cole in particular coming deeper to collect the ball and the whole team passing with greater urgency. Liverpool still didn’t look a veritable threat because passing behind the United back line into the lone (and still not firing) Torres proved unsuccessful. And then, from a Nani cross, Berbatov controlled wonderfully and finished unfathomably. The game looked over until two individual fouls on Torres – incidentally Liverpool’s ploy of passing behind the United defence into Torres’s path became more effective, in the second goal’s case at least, by the introduction of Ngog – and Gerrard calmly finished both.
And, for the third time this season it looked as though Ferguson’s men would relinquish a lead. Once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence. But three times would be a habit. And as though the fairytale transformation needed soldering home, Berbatov leapt above Carragher to complete his hattrick (from a right side cross no less – this time O’Shea’s) and win the game. Spreading play wide for crosses has definitely been more of an emphasis by Ferguson this season – Nani has provided five assists in as many matches, and all of the goals today came from crosses. Will United continue with a 4-4-2 in European ties away from home, against Arsenal, or against Chelsea for example? If he chooses to switch to a five man midfield with Berbatov continuing his good form, does Rooney remain undroppable? It will certainly be intriguing to find out.
I enjoyed seeing Berbatov not revel in his Galileo moment; he walked unassumingly down the touchline and offered a quick acknowledgement to the fans – some of the same fans who would have liked to see his exit over the summer. His anomalous style also leads me to think Berbatov is a personality who understands the fickleness that his profession turns on; last year he was derided, tomorrow he will be exalted. Irrespective of what may happen next week he’s done enough to remind me, today (and throughout his time in England), that there are reasons to still love the game.
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