No easy games in the Premier League? Step this way, inspector. Manchester United went top of the table for the first time this season courtesy of what can only be described as an early Christmas present from Blackburn. By the time the margin of victory became embarrassing in the second half, the visitors were clearly wishing they were somewhere else, though it was the way they started the game that was most surprising.
Sam Allardyce's teams usually display a degree of defensive organisation, but in going behind after a mere 72 seconds then wimping out of the contest completely when a wretched backpass gave United a third goal with less than 30 minutes played, Blackburn put up about as much resistance as a doormat.
Barely pausing to wipe their feet, United duly filled their boots, with Dimitar Berbatov claiming his second hat-trick of the season before going on to finish with five. It was the Bulgarian who struck first, poking Nani's clever cross past a static Paul Robinson as the Rovers marking went astray on United's opening attack. Park Ji-sung was next, finishing confidently by a wonderfully precise return pass from Wayne Rooney, before Berbatov took advantage of another pass for his second.
Sadly for Blackburn the provider was Pascal Chimbonda, committing every cardinal sin in the defenders' handbook under not terribly great pressure from Rooney, and already it was clear that anyone hoping for the sort of Lancashire derby to warm the cockles on a cold day might have been better heading for Bolton.
The second half opened with a third goal for Berbatov, who started the move, and finished it, with clever feet from Nani in between. Arguably United's best player, with Rooney working unselfishly but not seeing all he attempted come off, Nani scored the fifth after producing more footwork to leave Chimbonda looking foolish, before Berbatov scored two more from close range.
The striker could have had six but for Robinson making a decent save near the end, and as Berbatov was also denied a penalty in first-half stoppage time, and Nani hit a post with a free-kick intended for Nemanja Vidic to nod in, Blackburn must have been relieved to escape without the score reaching double figures. It was that one-sided. The Rovers fans chanting "Big Sam, sort it out" midway though the game were either attempting humour or trying to keep warm.
Allardyce listed half-a-dozen players absent through injury, but was not seeking excuses. "Let's face it, we weren't able to cope," the Rovers manager said. "We were completely outplayed, and while I have always been an admirer of Berbatov's quality, our defending was poor. There are occasions when you can come here and block it up, but you need commitment to do that and we didn't show the desire."
Berbatov, who scored his first league goals since his last hat-trick, against Liverpool on 19 September, said it was one of those days when moves practised on the training ground came off on the pitch. "Today we were excellent in supporting each other," he said. Very true. Particularly the reference to training pitch exercises, which is what this game frequently resembled.
United played well, putting together some intricate passing moves, but mainly because Blackburn allowed them to. Even when they won the ball the visitors gave it away again quickly and cheaply. It was hard to say United made a statement to make Chelsea sit up and take notice; they simply took advantage of a poor side and they will not be able to play Blackburn every week. "I don't think it will affect Chelsea at all," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "The important thing is that it was a top performance by us, we are getting some rhythm back into our game."
Becoming only the fourth player to score five in a Premier League match – Andy Cole, Alan Shearer and Jermain Defoe, since you ask – will do wonders for Berbatov's confidence and not much harm to his contract negotiations, though again, while the finishing was impeccable and the poacher's instinct in working order, a striker of his ability could hardly miss with the opportunities and space he was given.
In that respect it was possibly a slight worry for United that Rooney has still not managed a goal from open play for his club all season. He linked up superbly and made chances for others throughout, yet the old Rooney would have run riot in a turkey-shoot such as this, if Blackburn's new owners will forgive the expression. Chris Samba pulled a goal back for Rovers near the end, from a cross by young substitute Josh Morris, but Blackburn will be glad this performance came after their recent takeover had already gone through. It was fowl.
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
TONY KAYE, Observer reader Blackburn were tactically inept but this was one of those days when everything went right for us and we showed how we can play. Berbatov again silenced his doubters and proved what a good finisher he is when he gets the service. Nani was exceptional; this time last year a lot of United fans would've happily shipped him out but no one would now, he's become a key part of the team. Rooney did OK, he improved in the second half. It's great to have gone top of the league, we haven't played at our best for a lot of the season but we're still unbeaten and we're almost back to full strength, so things are looking good.
The fan's player ratings Van der Sar 7; Rafael 8, Ferdinand 8, Vidic 8 (Evans 64 7), Evra 8; Nani 9, Carrick 8, Anderson 8, Park 8 (Obertan 73 7); Rooney 8, Berbatov 10
MARCUS TATTERSALL, Observer reader It was cold at the start of the match and by the end it felt like Siberia – which is where our players should be sent to after that performance. To say it was embarrassing is an understatement but it was self-inflicted from the start – we line up against big clubs with the aim of soaking up pressure for 90 minutes, and it just doesn't work. How Chimbonda wasn't taken off after 25 minutes beggars belief. This was a massive PR disaster for the new owners – all of south-east Asia will have seen that match. One good thing is that it might make them realise they need to spend money on improving the team.
The fan's player ratings Robinson 5; Salgado 2, Nelsen 3, Samba 3, Chimbonda 1; Emerton 2 (Linganzi 52 2), Dunn 3, Jones 3, Goulon 2 (Hoilett 28 3), EH Diouf 3 (Morris 52 4); Roberts 4
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