Manchester United did so much more than stretch their lead at the summit of the Premier League as they steamrollered a hapless Birmingham City on an afternoon when Dimitar Berbatov scored a hattrick.
Smarting from their trip to St Andrews, the home of the Midlands club, less than a month ago, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were not going to make the same mistakes again. On that night a strong United side failed to kill off Birmingham on a cold night in Britain’s second city and although they controlled the match for large periods, they could only muster the one goal, shortly after half time. Birmingham hung in there on that occasion and snatched an underserved equaliser at the death.
Alex McLeish’s side were never in a position to threaten the result in this encounter as straight from the off United were on the front foot. The home side won a corner after a minute of play which Ryan Giggs swung left footed into the area. John O’Shea came forward to meet the ball with a glancing header towards the far post where Berbatov ghosted in to head the ball across Ben Foster’s goal from near point blank range.
The former Manchester United goalkeeper was picking the ball out of his net again on the half hour mark following a second from Berbatov. The Bulgarian received the ball from Wayne Rooney, and cutting into the area from the left side with his languid running style he waited for the defenders in front of him to commit themselves before driving a low shot at Foster’s near post. A combination of the power of the shot and his defenders blocking his view meant that although the five times England capped ‘keeper managed to get his right foot to the ball it could not stop the ball nestling in the bottom right hand corner of his goal.
By then Berbatov could well have had his hattrick already, having seen his low shot minutes earlier well save by Foster before Nani had a chance but wasted it, shooting high and wide.
United had further chances as they bombarded their former stoppers goal; first Gibson powered in a shot which Foster again got a strong pair of hands behind before Giggs looking as adventurous and commanding as ever he has before, now in his 38th year, fired a shot on target which was only stopped by a deflection off an unwitting Birmingham defender.
It was clear that the City defence was missing Scott Dann, ruled out for the remainder of the season through injury. The 23 year old former Coventry City centre-half has formed a useful partnership with Roger Johnson at the heart of the Blues defence, and with Liam Ridgewell moving into the centre from left-back there was obvious confusion.
This came to a fore a Berbatov won the ball in the Birmingham half on the stroke of half time before passing to Rooney. Rooney ran at the defence before paying a sumptuous one-two with his strike partner whom he had previously received the ball from. Now nearing the bye-line on the right, Rooney played a low ball all the way across Foster’s six yard box as three defenders attempted to back track, however as they all went for the ball Giggs strolled in at the far post and slotted the ball home for his side’s third.
Following the half-time interval Birmingham briefly looked to find a foothold in the match, however David Bentley, on loan from Tottenham, could only shoot wide after carving open a chance as he skated past Anderson in midfield.
Normal service was resumed shortly afterwards though as Nani curled in a cross from the right and Rooney got his head to the ball at the far post. It seemed all he had to do was make contact to score his fourth of the season, however somehow the striker glanced at the ball with his head where he should have powered it home.
There was little rest for Birmingham’s defence though as Rooney, seemingly not disheartened by his earlier miss, brought down the ball in midfield and played in Giggs down the left. The Welshman stopped and it seemed the move had fizzled out, however as Berbatov began a run across the box United’s most experiences player crossed the ball into the striker’s feet.
Berbatov, with little room to manoeuvre, used to pace of the ball to redirect it over the head of Foster and off the underside of the crossbar to complete his hattrick. Even in celebration the player who has received much criticism for his apparent lack of interest and laziness looked little more than pleased as he trotted over to celebrate with his teammates.
Berbatov did not stop there and could have easily had a fourth to his name had he not hooked a chance wide. However, where Berbatov had missed Nani did not. Possibly smarting from earlier close range attempts that had failed to find the target, the Portuguese international smashed in a shot from some 15 yards out after cutting in from the right to seal an emphatic win for United who saw them stretch their lead at the top of the Premier League from one point to two, with games in hand, as Manchester City lost to Aston Villa.
For Birmingham and McLeish that loss now leaves them just a point above the relegation zone, their only solace being that they have played a game less than Wigan and Wolves who are directly below them.
Match of the Weekend contenders:
Cardiff City 4-2 Watford: Cardiff reclaimed second spot in the Championship table with the help of early goals from Craig Bellamy and Michael Chopra before Jay Bothroyd gave the Bluebirds what appeared to be an unassailable 3-0 lead after just half an hour, however Will Buckley got the Hornet back in the match before half time. Cardiff began to sweat as Marvin Sordell closed the gap even further after the break. City were on the ropes from there on in until Gabor Gyepes bundled over the line to give Dave Jones’ some breathing space with seven minutes remaining.
Dallas Stars 4-7 Calgary Flames
The Flames put an end to the Stars’ record eight away match winning streak in the NHL with a hatful of goals in Alberta. Right wing David Moss scored two and set up another while Brendan Morrison scored and assisted one as Calgary led 5-3 as the second period came to a close. Although James Neal got the score back to 5-4 at the start of the third period the Flames’ scored a further two eight minutes before a host of penalties against both sides led to the match being broken up in the final five minutes.