If the first of Dimitar Berbatov's goals was as soft as they come, the second was the stuff of a striker's dreams. And with the workmanlike third, the languid Bulgarian applied the knock-out blow to opponents who had begun to believe in their own renaissance, securing a result that may shape the season for both sides.

That second effort, though, was the one for the end-of-season highlights package. Just before the hour Berbatov had his back to goal as Nani's cross came in from the right. Controlling it on his right thigh, he let it bounce up and then launched himself to meet it again with an overhead kick that saw the ball smack the underside of the crossbar and fall across the line in front of the ecstatic Stretford End.

It was a piece of improvised athleticism of which Denis Law himself would have been proud.

"I didn't see the ball go into the net," Berbatov said. "I just heard the noise. It was a good goal but for me it doesn't matter if it was an overhead kick or a tap-in."

• Kevin McCarra's match report: Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool• Read Sean Ingle's minute-by-minute report• David Pleat: Torres isn't getting the support he needs• View Tom Jenkins's best images from Old TraffordHis manager was more effusive. "A fantastic strike," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "It was unexpected, a surprise attempt. Not many of those go into the net. Fortunately this time it did."

According to Patrice Evra, it was the sort of thing that is often seen at United's Carrington training ground. "I wasn't surprised," the full‑back said. "He does that all the time in training." The impact was strengthened by the fact that it was sandwiched by two more conventional goals from the sort of headers expected of a No 9.

The masterpiece came from a moment of concentrated explosiveness, the sort of thing that made perfect sense of the two years of apparent strolling and loitering which had United's fans wondering if the £30m man would ever come good. Even Ferguson, for all his encouraging remarks in yesterday's programme notes, in which he confessed himself "thrilled" by the striker's current form, must have wondered from time to time whether this investment would be one to write off – a Garry Birtles or a Peter Davenport rather than an Eric Cantona or a Teddy Sheringham.

"Lots of questions were asked about him last season and he was made something of a whipping boy," Ferguson wrote. "People should have queried whether the man had real ability, and the answer for me was undoubtedly 'yes'. Next they should have looked to see if he was a Manchester United kind of player, and again I think there was no doubt about him."

No sooner had the faithful absorbed those thoughts than Berbatov emerged to demonstrate his ability to rekindle the enthusiasm of those regretting the way in which the currents of the modern game have largely swept aside the type of player capable of putting his foot on the ball and redirecting the flow with a single thoughtful flick.

If at times he seems an almost spectral anachronism in a game where the emphasis is increasingly on speed and defending from the front, yesterday he demonstrated that the old virtues can still be piercingly relevant and, at times, decisive – at least when they are at the disposal of a player so clearly capable of blending the cerebral and the technical.

This was Berbatov's first hat-trick for Manchester United, and United's first against Liverpool for more than 60 years. He now has six goals in five Premier League  appearances this season, compared with nine from 31 league games in 2008-09 and 12 from 33 last season. There were also goals in the pre-season friendlies, and one in the Community Shield win over Chelsea.

He is playing with an authority that finally justifies the huge fee which brought him from Tottenham Hotspur two years ago, reminding us that he scored 41 goals in 69 appearances for his country before creating dismay among his compatriots by calling time on his international career. If his motive was to concentrate all his efforts on redeeming himself in United's eyes, it is certainly paying off. With Wayne Rooney still lacking sharpness, Berbatov is rising to the occasion as United strive to keep in touch with Chelsea.

His first goal made a mockery of Fernando Torres's attempt to mark him at a corner – a bizarrely misguided defensive disposition: were the situation reversed, would Ferguson ask Berbatov to mark Torres? – but for the third, from John O'Shea's clipped cross, he comprehensively outjumped Jamie Carragher, a bona fide defender.

"It was a magical day," Berbatov conceded, emerging with seeming reluctance from behind his customary mask of semi-detached lugubriousness to produce something resembling an expression of satisfaction.

"I'm happy because we won a very important game. It was special for me because I scored a hat-trick and we won against our rival. I don't want it to be my last, so I'll keep working and hopefully I'll keep improving. Today everything was working for me and I thank my team-mates for giving me the ball."

But his laconic responses suggest that, like Cantona, he is in no need of external vindication. "I'm going home with a smile on my face," he said, "but to my kids I'm nothing special. And tomorrow is another day."

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