MANCHESTER // Vindication is rarely so sweet for Sir Alex Ferguson. Defeating Liverpool has become a life's work and is invariably enjoyable. So, too, is the sense that one of his players has confounded the critics. Yesterday he got both. The Scot had described Manchester United's meetings with Liverpool as "the daddy of derbies" and "the fixture". As he was proved right, it was by a man he has long defended: Dimitar Berbatov, scorer of a wonderful hat-trick.
"There's never any doubt about the quality of the man," said Ferguson, who was combative in the extreme afterwards. "The scoreline was a farce," he added. "It could have been 10. It could have been a cricket score." Yet little of note happened until Ryan Giggs curled in a corner, a stooping Berbatov resisted Fernando Torres's rather half-hearted attempts to tug him back and directed his header in.
Thereafter, Nani unleashed a fierce drive which rebounded back off a post with Jose Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper, defeated by the sheer power of the shot. The Portuguese winger was a growing influence, which was confirmed by his part in United's superlative second goal. He met Darren Fletcher's cross-field pass and picked out Berbatov with his cross. The rest was all the Bulgarian's work, a wonderful piece of control on his thigh followed by an overhead kick that required technique and talent.
And yet, from nothing, came the comeback. A trademark display of acceleration from Torres was followed by a sharp turn that drew a foul from Jonny Evans. Steven Gerrard ignored a chorus of boos to defeat Edwin van der Sar from the penalty spot. Then, once again, the pace of Torres frightened a United defender. This time John O'Shea was the culprit, pushing the Spaniard. Howard Webb, the referee, opted for a yellow card when another official may have deemed the Irishman the last man and brandished red.
Gerrard applied his own punishment, curling his free-kick between O'Shea and Fletcher as a gap opened up on the edge of the United wall. "They didn't offer anything," Ferguson said. "They had to depend upon decisions from the linesman to get them back in the game." "Sir Alex is entitled to any opinion he wants to have," a diplomatic Roy Hodgson said. "We can take credit for the way we got back in the game from 2-0 to 2-2. That should have been the goal that gave us a good and maybe a deserved point."
United would not have concurred. In any case, as Hodgson continued: "We defended poorly five or six minutes from the end. Our downfall was due to the fact we should have defended better for that third goal." Because enter Berbatov again, rising above Jamie Carragher to head in O'Shea's cross. A remarkable end to a remarkable game. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org