For a manager in third place in the Premiership, Bolton's Sam Allardyce had sounded a tad pessimistic in suggesting his team required "a miracle" for victory over Manchester United. But at times yesterday afternoon, the stark assessment looked like an understatement. His worst fears were confirmed as United produced one of the most dominant starts to a game by any away team in memory,
Wayne Rooney ended his long drought without a goal by scoring two early on. The home side improved in a second half of characteristic vigour, only to be left feeling even more sorry for themselves when Cristiano Ronaldo added a third on the break and Rooney, in the week of his 21st birthday, completed a first Premiership hat-trick just before the finish.
With the movement and control of Rooney and Louis Saha making the most of Michael Carrick's passing, United were quite irresistible. Sir Alex Ferguson was almost purring as he suggested later: "The first 25 minutes were the best football we've played in a good few years. No other team in the country will come here and get that result."
That is one of few consolations for Allardyce, who admitted: "You can't live with them when they're in that mood. We were chasing shadows because of their movement and passing. It's a great lesson for us to show exactly where we are and where the big boys are. At least we had a spirited go at them in the second half before making two dreadful mistakes."
The game had been billed as the Premiership's statistically tightest defence against its most prolific attack, the suggestion being that a good proportion of the play would take place around Bolton's penalty area. That was certainly the way of it in the first 30 minutes, in which United, utterly dominant, reduced the home support to shocked silence. The Reebok Stadium had not seen a visiting team score all season, yet in little more than a quarter of an hour Jussi Jaaskelainen was retrieving the ball from his net twice.
Nor was it just the supposedly attacking players bombarding him; in the first 10 minutes, each of United's full-backs almost scored in quick succession. Patrice Evra, the left-back, was the closer of the two when he finished an exquisite passing move by forcing Jaaskelainen to block. Then Rooney put Saha through and Abdoulaye Faye had to head his chip off the line. Rooney was clearly in the mood, and soon Carrick sent him away for a sweet left-footed finish.
"It was going to happen eventually," said Ferguson. "Once he got the first, he became more relaxed and confident and I was hoping the ball would land at his feet every time." The wish was granted only six minutes later. Favoured by a lucky bounce as a defender challenged the adventurous Gary Neville, Rooney curled the sweetest of shots just inside Jaaskelainen's post, this time with his right foot.
It took Bolton 25 minutes to create a chance, and Saha, clipping a post, and Ryan Giggs, thwarted by the goalkeeper's fine save, could have put even more distance between the teams. Replacing the suspended captain, Kevin Nolan, with Stelios Giannakopoulos may have given Bolton's midfield a positive look, but the attacking trio of Kevin Davies, Nicolas Anelka and El Hadji Diouf were unusually passive, while Anelka also showed no interest whatever in tracking back to hamper Neville's sorties down the wing.
When Allardyce appeared swigging from a water bottle in the technical area after spending the first half upstairs the suspicion was that it might have contained hard liquor. His team, desperately needing to score the next goal, at last managed to exert some pressure, if only from the familiar diet of corners, free-kicks and long throws.
They still had to wait until the 77th minute for a real chance, Edwin van der Sar saving with his foot as Davies headed down for Ivan Campo. The home crowd stayed long enough to groan at that, but the visitors' third goal sent them streaming towards the exits. Saha took Carrick's pass on his chest and laid the ball square for Ronaldo to run into an empty net.
There were still eight minutes remaining, and time, too, for Rooney to complete his first hat-trick since scoring three against Fenerbahce on his debut for the club. The crowning moment was a lovely touch and clean finish from a through pass by substitute Darren Fletcher.
It was United's ninth win in their last 11 away games and confirmed the possibility of a serious challenge to Chelsea's supremacy this season. "We have got to improve because Chelsea have laid down a marker," Ferguson said. "I don't mind going head to head with them and don't mind if it's a two-horse race, as long as we win." The two thoroughbreds remain neck-and-neck.