|1||Van der Sar|
Dimitar Berbatov’s first hat-trick for United settled a pulsating clash as both the striker and the fixture lived up to Sir Alex Ferguson’s pre-match billing.
A stooping header in the first half, then a beautiful bicycle kick and a towering header in the second, earned the Bulgarian a standing ovation from the Old Trafford faithful and his team all three, priceless points. But the headlines would have been dramatically different had Dimitar not headed John O’Shea’s 84th-minute cross triumphantly past Pepe Reina - Liverpool had dragged themselves from 0-2 down to 2-2 with Steven Gerrard scoring from a penalty and a free-kick in a frenetic six-minute spell.
As expected, Sir Alex made almost wholesale changes to the side held 0-0 by Rangers in midweek – nine in total, including the one enforced by Antonio Valencia’s grim injury and another due to Rio Ferdinand reporting flu-like symptoms. But the team taking on Liverpool more closely resembled the league eleven that lined up against their local rivals Everton at Goodison Park – the only alteration being Wayne Rooney in for Gary Neville, with John O’Shea moving back from midfield to right-back.
With the rain steadily falling at Old Trafford, the Reds attempted to put the early skids under the visitors’ back-pedalling rearguard. Nani, in particular, tested new Liverpool full-back Paul Konchesky on United’s right flank and forced a couple of corners – one of which Nemanja Vidic nearly converted with a header over the bar.
However, the Portuguese winger spurned a wonderful opening in the 16th minute when, after being slipped into space inside the box by Rooney, he took a touch too many and enabled Liverpool to get three bodies between him and the goal. With his best shooting chance gone, he returned the ball to his team-mate; when Rooney’s effort was then blocked, Nani comfortably missed on the rebound.
While the rain abated, United’s search