Great players are defined by great performances and match-winning moments, and the ability to transform the narrative of football’s grandest occasions is what leaves lasting memories amongst the supporters.
The record-breaking move of Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United was designed to bring such moments, with Sir Alex Ferguson spending big on the Bulgarian following two hugely impressive seasons at Tottenham.
Burdened with comparisons to the legendary Eric Cantona, it initially took time for Berbatov’s flame to truly set alight, but when in the mood there were few footballers capable of producing what the languid showman could.
Berbatov’s career with the club consisted of 48 league goals in just 108 appearances and two Premier League winners’ medals, though the abiding memory of his Mancunian venture is one September afternoon against the Red Devils’ greatest rivals.
Manchester United against Liverpool remains the biggest fixture in English football and one of the most famous sporting rivalries.
Two northwest cities perhaps share more similarities than they care to admit, including a deep-rooted and all-encompassing passion for their proud footballing representatives.
That United and Liverpool – separated by a little more than 31 miles either side of the East Lancs Road – are England’s two most successful clubs only adds fuel to the fire whenever the Premier League giants meet.
Berbatov’s crowning moment came in just the fifth fixture of his third season at Old Trafford, the forward having initially struggled to find his role despite flashes of ability since arriving from north London in 2008.
United had seen the Premier League title wrestled from their clutches by a free-scoring Chelsea during the previous campaign, having previously enjoyed an unbroken three-season grip on the championship.
Ferguson’s side were also on 18 league titles, one short of old rivals Liverpool as the Scot’s promise of knocking the Reds off their perch edged ever closer.
United had began unbeaten across four games, home wins over Newcastle and West Ham mixed with draws at Fulham and Everton respectively.
Liverpool, by contrast, had won just once as the ill-fated Roy Hodgson era began poorly, but a meeting with the Red Devils offered a chance to get their season up and running.
Games between the two teams in the Premier League era have more often than not failed to live up to the lofty pre-match billing, but what followed was an entertaining encounter as defensive frailties were exposed.
Berbatov had looked a player rejuvenated in the opening weeks of the campaign after scoring three times in four fixtures, and the Red Devils’ number nine was the player who proved the difference as United drew first blood in the closing stages of a cagey first half.
Just why Fernando Torres was tasked with marking the Bulgarian remains a mystery, but the Spaniard was overpowered in the race to meet Ryan Giggs’ corner as Berbatov guided a powerful header beyond Pepe Reina to put his side ahead before the interval.
United continued to dominate proceedings against a Liverpool side lacking ambition after the break, their persistence rewarded just before the hour following the pièce de résistance of Berbatov’s brilliant afternoon.
Nani’s hoisted ball into the penalty area narrowly avoided the head of Wayne Rooney, dropping onto the cushioned thigh of Berbatov lurking just behind.
Back to goal, the ball propped invitingly into the air for the forward, who executed an implausible overhead kick which crashed in off the crossbar as a motionless Reina watched on in perplexity at what Berbatov had just produced.
It was goal wrapped in Berbatov’s unconventional genius, a moment few saw coming and one even fewer were capable of producing.
“If my football was based on a boring way of playing, a secure way of playing, then I would have tried to stop the ball and try to look for someone facing the goal, so he can shoot.
“Of course, when it results in a goal, perfect 10. Maybe if I do it again another time, it goes into the stands, but, in that moment, everything was perfect.
“The control of the ball, the bicycle-kick, then the ball hitting the bar and going into the goal for more dramatic effect… I think that’s the answer: I just saw football that way. Not the conventional way.
– Dimitar Berbatov (manutd.com)
Berbatov’s Premier League pinnacle as a Man United player so almost came to be taken away from him however, as Steven Gerrard’s latest Roy of the Rovers impersonation looked to have rescued a point for the visiting Merseysiders.
Jonny Evans clumsy foul on Torres allowed Gerrard to reduce the deficit from the spot, before firing a low free-kick through a poorly assembled defensive wall to level the scores and send the pocket of travelling supporters into raptures.
Berbatov, however, was not to be denied.
As the minutes ticked ever closer towards full time, the forward delivered once again to seal three points following a pulsating clash between the fierce rivals.
Paul Scholes’ pass found John O’Shea wide on the right, whose lofted ball into the penalty area was met magnificently by the rising Berbatov, who towered above Jamie Carragher to glance the ball into the far corner and become the first United player in 64 years to score a hat-trick against Liverpool.
Berbatov ran arms outstretched to celebrate in front of home support, basking in the adulation in a moment he described as little more than a blur.
“We were always scoring goals in the last minute. It is in the air. You see that something is coming, you smell that something is coming. And I was so confident that day, I was sure that if I had one more chance, I would score.
“Sheasy (Jonh O’Shea) put the ball in, I timed my jump one second before [Jamie] Carragher, it was so easy for me to get the ball, get the header, get the goal.
“Game over. We win.
“After that, everything is a blur. You’re running blind. You don’t see anything but colour. Let me tell you, that feeling is f*cking unbelievable.”
If the Theatre of Dreams was the coliseum, then Berbatov was the people’s gladiatorial champion, leaving their Merseyside opponents slain and the terraces in euphoric delirium.
Berbatov polarised opinion during his four seasons in Manchester, his languid style not always proving popular despite a silky smooth first touch and several examples of his trademark swagger and utter gifted genius.
Football fans often salute the work-horses and those who give blood, sweat and tears for the cause, but it is the players who produce spellbinding moments who truly captivate and capture the imagination.
Dimitar Berbatov most certainly fit into that latter category, with his Liverpool masterclass the footballing crescendo of a superb Premier League career.