The Bulgarian striker netted a hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Wigan on Boxing Day, taking Sir Alex Ferguson's side level on points with City at the Premier League summit
By Greg Stobart at Old Trafford
For all the recent talk about weaknesses in the Manchester United squad, it was a fringe player who netted a hat-trick in the five-goal demolition of Wigan on Boxing Day that took Sir Alex Ferguson's side level with neighbours City at the top of the Premier League.
That squad man just happened to be Dimitar Berbatov, a £30.75 million signing who finished joint top scorer in the league last season. On only his second start of the current campaign – and his first since September – the Bulgarian striker served a timely reminder as to his qualities.
After all, Berbatov's current contract, worth £80,000-a-week, runs out at the end of the season and from January 1 he will be free to hold talks with foreign clubs over a free transfer next summer. United, however, hold a unilateral option to extend the 30-year-old's deal for a further year, and Ferguson must be carefully considering whether to activate that clause.
Berbatov has been marginalised at Old Trafford, falling behind Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck in the pecking order after Ferguson appeared to lose faith in the former Tottenham man. The player himself, though, has spoken of his desire to win back his place in the team and produced a performance to match his words in the 5-0 thrashing of Roberto Martinez's side.
Off the back of his superb goal against Fulham five days earlier, Berbatov produced three expert finishes. First he doubled United's lead – given to them by Park Ji-Sung – from close range in the 41st minute – and he completed his hat-trick after the break with an emphatic turn and shot and a classy penalty. Antonio Valencia netted United's other goal with a drilled effort in between Berbatov's second-half double.
Berba-top | The Bulgarian grabbed his fifth EPL hat-trick as United beat WiganThe Red Devils had a touch of fortune as Conor Sammon was shown a red card for raising an arm towards Michael Carrick, described as a 'shocking decision' by Wigan boss Roberto Martinez, but with Berbatov on form they were never going to drop points here.
It was the fifth Premier League hat-trick of Berbatov's career – his fourth for United – and it was little surprise that it came against one of the Premier League relegation strugglers given the player's propensity to be a flat-track bully.
His problem over the last year has been a failure to perform in the big games – a view reflected by Ferguson's lack of trust, displayed most obviously when he was left out of the 18-man squad for the Champions League final against Barcelona in May. While Javier Hernandez failed to score against Wigan, he has already established a reputation for scoring important goals at key moments in tight games.
The United boss said as much after the game. "It was the right game for Dimitar,” Ferguson explained. “He's not had the best of starts to the season in terms of selection, with the options I have in Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck.”
Berbatov's hat-trick in the home win over Liverpool last season stands out as the exception to the rule and despite his lack of workrate, certainly in comparison to his team-mates, he still has something to offer. He remains one of the most naturally talented players in the country, with his silky touch, excellent awareness and eye for goal.
|BERBATOV'S KEY MATCH STATS|
But at this stage in his career, Berbatov has appeared more bothered about the final contract of his footballing lifespan, even considering a move to Turkey on a lucrative two-year deal. His preference, though, would be to stay at United and he will have to make the best of every chance he is given to shine. As he walked off the pitch clutching the matchball, he was also holding on to the prospect of extending his United career beyond the next six months.
While Berbatov made his case, the club moved level on points with City by extending their record to 25 points from a possible 27 since the humiliating 6-1 derby defeat in October.
United conceded top spot to their neighbours on Christmas Day but will move clear of City if they avoid defeat against Blackburn on New Year's Eve, when Ferguson celebrates his 70th birthday, ensuring they see in 2012 in a manner in which they mean to go on. The Red Devils are renowned for their ability to make a push for honours at the turn of the year and have started early this season with back-to-back 5-0 victories as they have rediscovered their style after a run of uninspiring performances, if not results.
United have clawed back a five point gap between themselves and City while the goal difference between the sides now stands at five. The title charge has started and United are hard to stop when they gather momentum, with so many proven winners in their squad.
“As I always say it's a long season,” Ferguson added on Monday. “If we're top of the Premier League or joint top with City on New Year's Day, then I'll be happy. We are hitting really good form.”
United will be particularly pleased given the injury and illness crisis that meant they were without 10 players for Wigan's visit to Old Trafford. Two midfielders – Valencia and Carrick – were forced into makeshift roles in the back four but versatility is one of United's greatest strengths.
The likes of Nemanja Vidic, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher and Anderson have all been absent in recent weeks yet United have won eight and drawn one of their last nine league games. Few would argue that this is the strongest United squad of recent times but they have shown resilience and pragmatism to fight their way to parity with City.
The momentum in the two-way battle for the Premier League title is likely to continue to shift in the second half of the season as Manchester's finest battle each other. For now the pendulum is swinging towards Old Trafford.
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