Tottenham Hotspur 6 Reading 4: Spurs face prospect of losing four-goal saviour Berbatov

Brilliant Bulgarian counters defensive laxness with advert of sought-after skills
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The Independent Football

Reading's Dave Kitson had vowed that if he scored at the ground where, as a boy, he idolised Glenn Hoddle, "I would go nuts..." In the event, he did even better than that. He scored a brace. And indeed he did go nuts on an afternoon when every player from both sides decided it would be fun to join in the general air of madness. On any other day, Kitson's endeavours on an occasion in which your team scores four goals, would have been sufficient to ensure victory.

But that is to legislate without the impact of Dimitar Berbatov, who in this one surreal match, in which Spurs three times recovered from a goal behind, scored four to double his League tally for the season. Yet, while it endeared him further to the home faithful, it almost certainly increased the likelihood of the Bulgarian disappearing through the transfer window with Manchester United the most obvious destination.

Afterwards Spurs head coach, Juande Ramos, failed to diminish such speculation. Describing Berbatov's contribution as "magnificent", the Spaniard added: "But I cannot assure you that he is going to stay. The chairman decides that. If it was up to me, we wouldn't want to lose him. But we have to take into account the player's opinions and feelings."

In truth, Berbatov was aided by some abysmal defending, just as Reading's players had at times benefited from Spurs' rearguard going AWOL on occasion. No wonder that Spurs's assistant coach Gus Poyet stood and shook his head in bewilderment at the end. Perhaps he wondered just how his team had managed to secure a victory from this. Reading merited far more than this outcome. But the difference was simply this: Kitson took two of the seven opportunities presented to him. A decent enough return. His Bulgarian counterpart was brutally efficient with every invitation that came his way.

By the end, we had not witnessed anything so astonishing as, well, Reading's 7-4 defeat at Portsmouth in late September. Steve Coppell, Reading's manager, could barely contain his irritation at his side's eventual capitulation here. "Obviously, we're going to have to score six or seven away to get a result," he said. "It was desperately disappointing. It feels like there's a hole in your life, almost. I'm angry. Ninety per cent of the game we were terrific and we played our full and attacking part. It shouldn't have ended with the score it did."

Spurs started things off after only six minutes when Steed Malbranque released Robbie Keane down the right, and the Irishman immediately played the ball across goal for Berbatov to touch home with ease. But 10 minutes after Berbatov's opener, Paul Robinson failed to punch Nicky Shorey's free-kick cleanly, and Kalifa Ciss steered the ball back into an unguarded net.

It was a rare start for the midfielder, who got his chance yesterday because Brynjar Gunnarsson was suspended after his dismissal at West Ham on Boxing Day. Buoyed by that goal, the visitors grew in stature, and at times, looked the more threatening. Yet, it was Tottenham's Keane who spurned the half's best chance after Berbatov had squared the ball across goal.

After the break, the visitors seized the initiative. It came as no surprise when, from Shorey's corner, an unchallenged Ivar Ingimarsson headed down past Robinson. During this period, Kitson failed to capitalise on other opportunities to extend Reading's lead, and the visitors were made to rue those earlier misses just after the hour.

By then Jermain Defoe had replaced Ledley King and the substitute's low cross was cleared by Graeme Murty straight into the path of Berbatov, who dispatched his shot high into the net. Reading's response was for Kitson to steal in at the near post and head in Shorey's corner.

But Coppell's men could not hold on to a lead. They failed to clear a Jermaine Jenas corner, and Berbatov completed his hat-trick. Again it produced a reply from the visitors. Kitson headed the ball to Stephen Hunt, who returned ball to the striker, allowing him to dash through and chip Robinson.

Again Spurs replied. Malbranque curled the ball into the top corner. That made it 4-4. It was not until the 78th minute that Spurs finally edged into an unconvincing lead. Ibrahima Sonko brought down Keane, and though the Irishman's spot-kick was superbly saved by Marcus Hahnemann, Defoe, who much to Coppell's chagrin had encroached into the area, dived in to head the ball home. Only when Berbatov scored his fourth, chasing a long ball and volleying home did Tottenham look safe.