Manchester United sit atop the Premier League table tonight after squeezing past a spirited Bolton Wanderers side at Old Trafford. Despite dominating possession and territory United beat Bolton by the odd goal in three, with the visitor’s almost snatching a late equaliser. But with three points gained, United took full advantage of defeats for Chelsea and Liverpool.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson made eight changes to the side that drew with Sunderland two weeks ago, with Wayne Rooney missing through injury and Edwin van der Sar recalled between the sticks. It was clearly the impetus United needed, with the reds scoring after just four minutes. Indeed, Ferguson’s side could have scored six in the first half alone. No need to question the referee’s fitness this time.
United’s first came with a hint of fortune though. Patrice Evra’s left wing cross headed towards goal by Michael Owen – starting only his second game at Old Trafford – for the visitor’s central defender Zat Knight to deflect the ball into his own net.
It was old fashioned stuff from the home side, with the peerless Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia – growing in stature by the game – offering width and pace on the wings.
The second followed on the half hour. Not before time as United laid siege to the Bolton goal. Valencia exchanged passes with Gary Neville and lashed home his first goal in a United shirt. The finish was crisp and showed far greater composure than had become the Ecuadorian’s norm.
Somehow United failed to capitalise on their superiority, with Michael Owen guilty of spurning two good chances in the second half that would have put the game to bed. In Rooney’s absence, Dimitar Berbatov was again an influential figure in attack but the pair’s tendency to profligate would have been costly against stronger opposition.
At the other end Bolton forced their was into the game strongly in the final 20 minutes of the match, with Matt Taylor heading home after Sam Ricketts’ long-throw was only half-cleared by Neville. With Vidic missing, United looked vulnerable in the air and such was the panic that Ferguson’s team could have conceded a last-minute equaliser when Gary Cahill headed wide. He should have scored.
But a draw would not have been par for the course on a day when United’s performance was a significant step up from the lethargic showing a fortnight ago. Yet Ferguson’s concern both with United’s defensive shape and inability to ram home the advantage of his team’s possession and creative impetus is understandable.
“You have to give Bolton credit but we gave away a soft goal. We have won championships by having runs without conceding goals and we definitely need to get back to doing that,” said Ferguson after the match.
“We shouldn’t be conceding goals like that. It was more tense than we would have liked. We made it hard for ourselves and we were panicking at times. But we got through it, just.
“There were a lot of opportunities to finish the game, and when that happens, two-goal leads aren’t particularly great and of course Bolton scored and then it was back to walls stuff really for that last ten minutes, there was a bit of panic.”
Despite this Ferguson was also quick to recognise a marked improvement in United’s attacking play from the fixture against Sunderland two weeks ago. Through the midfield – Anderson, Giggs and Valencia in particular – United played at pace and created a rash of chances for the first hour of the match.
“We played very well I thought, the football throughout the game was very good, apart from the last ten minutes,” said Ferguson.
“But we played some very good football. (There was) a good speed to the game, so I was happy with that.”
The United manager will have to do without both Rooney and man-of-the-match Giggs for the trip to Moscow in midweek. Ferguson is unlikely to his leading marksman, who is still suffering with a minor calf injury, especially with Rooney’s wife Colleen also due to give birth.
But on this form United will miss Giggs even more. On the day that the ageless winger headed the list of Ballon D’Or nominations, Giggs was superb once again.