Berbatov stirs just in time to help shaken United to the top

Bolton Wanderers 0 Manchester United 1
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"Attack, attack, attack," Manchester United's support chanted towards the end of a frustrating afternoon but it was not until the last minute of a disappointing game that they were able to break through a resolute home defence in which the goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen was outstanding. He did not deserve to be beaten by a header from the unmarked Dimitar Berbatov that brought United a third win in seven days, carrying them to the top of the table ahead of Liverpool, who play Everton tomorrow.

Until that unexpectedly dramatic finish, the champions' efforts in Wayne Rooney's absence were lacking in conviction. Berbatov had been more infuriatingly languid than ever, Carlos Tevez was never close to a goal and only Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kicks were a threat. It took the introduction of Ryan Giggs – for his 550th Premier League appearance – and Paul Scholes to inject real urgency.

So this strange season winds on, the leading teams making hard work of establishing their credentials. With the past week's work United have at least put down a marker. They have not conceded a goal for more than 10 games, equalling Chelsea's record, but away from Old Trafford goals of their own have been hard to come by. Yesterday's was only the 10th in 11 games.

It condemned a weakened Bolton, who cannot score anywhere, to a fourth successive defeat and continuing worries about their prospects of staying up. "We made a really poor decision defensively, which cost us a goal and that sticks in the throat," said their manager Gary Megson. His opposite number looked distinctly relieved. "They had one or two moments in the second half," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "You have to keep your concentration and we've been doing that very well. Being top is the best place to be, even if it's only for two days."

The most interesting incidents for half an hour were that Ronaldo, convinced he had been fouled by Kevin Davies, climbed off the floor to win the ball back; a United supporter,either bored, drunk or both, wandered all the way into the centre circlebefore stewards thought to apprehend him; and Ariza Makukula, on his Bolton debut, was booked for blatantly barging Nemanja Vidic in the back.

Makukula is on loan from Benfica with an option to buy him for £4.5 million in the summer. Playing on his own in attack, with Davies and MattTaylor supporting from the wings, he found it a difficult introduction to English football against a defence that had remained unbeaten for so long. At last came a decent chance at either end.

First Fabrice Muamba, easily holding off Anderson's challenge, muscled on and from 20 yards forced Edwin van der Sar to touch a strong shot over the bar. Ten minutes before half-time Gary Neville sent Darren Fletcher to the byline to cross for Ronaldo, who looked odds-on to score from eight yards. He headed the ball down into the ground and as it bounced up Jaaskelainen was able to push it away.

The goalkeeper, so often Bolton's saviour, had two more fine moments before the interval. After Berbatov won a soft free-kick, he knocked Ronaldo's fierce drive aside, and then did the same to a swerving shot from fully 35 yards by Anderson.

Neville led United out at a purposeful sprint for the second half, though the home side soon roused a smaller crowd than expected. Jlloyd Samuel beat United's captain and cut back a deep cross that Davies rose to head on to the top of the net. Makukula made way for Topi Obadeyi in attack but it was significant that Ferguson felt obliged to send on both Giggs and Scholes, even with two big cup ties coming up this week. Until that point, Ronaldo had remained the most likely source of a breakthrough for them. His tantalising cross eluded Fletcher and two free-kicks lined up in characteristic gunslinger-pose were then struck hard and low at Jaaskelainen, who was grateful to push them out.

Just as it looked as though Bolton would hold out for a deserved point, their sturdy resistance was broken. Giggs fed Tevez for a deft turnbetween two defenders and a cross on to the head of Berbatov, whose sole contribution of the afternoon proved to be the most decisive by anyone.

Attendance: 26,021

Referee: Andre Marriner

Man of the match: Jaaskelainen

Match rating: 5/10