Is this really the strongest Manchester United squad in Sir Alex Ferguson's time at Old Trafford, as he recently claimed? Without Wayne Rooney, who scored five times in two meetings with Bolton last season, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes, there was a threadbare look to it yesterday, especially when reinforcements were required from the substitutes' bench. Worse, Ferguson was forced to watch his side's belated second-half improvement from the main stand after letting off steam to the referee Mark Clattenburg at the interval.
"I told him how bad he was and he didn't like it," Sir Alex said. "Some referees don't like the truth. I thought we should have got more protection and it was becoming a shambles. But we can't say we deserved to win the game because we didn't make enough chances."
His team created none at all in the first half, in which Nicolas Anelka's goal would eventually give Gary Megson a first victory since replacing Sammy Lee as manager and take Bolton out of the bottom three. Having flirted with a more fluent style under Lee, they have gone back to basics, which can sometimes be basic indeed, but a vigorous4-3-3 with plenty of emphasis on set pieces is something that works for them. There was a determination about the side that United, used to romping to victory here – they had not lost at Bolton for almost 30 years – were slow to match, and in Danny Guthrie, the young midfielder on loan from Liverpool, they have someone who can bring the ball down and play.
"We stood firm and worked our socks off," said a delighted Megson. "The game's been played like a local derby and we need to be playing every game like that. If we can perform like that against Manchester United, there's no excuse in any other game. It's a good day for the players, the fans and the club."
And a bad one in consequence for their neighbours, who fell three points behind Arsenal at the top of the table after giving Jussi Jaaskelainen in the home goal one shot to save in 90 minutes.
United's first-half performance in a 4-0 win at the Reebok 11 months ago was one of the most impressive away from home in memory. Yesterday's was a shocker by anybody's standards, let alone those of champions, and there could be no complaints at going in a goal behind. In the 11th minute, Guthrie's trickery drew a foul from the otherwise impressive Patrice Evra and as Ivan Campo chipped the free-kick forward, Gerard Pique made no contact and allowed the ball to drop for Anelka to turn in his eighth goal of the season. Ferguson, a confirmed admirer, may be weighing up a bid in January.
The greatest worry for Bolton was the possibility of Kevin Davies being sent off. Booked for a silly foul as part of his running feud with Evra, he received a serious talking to from the referee after an aerial collison between them. That incident, and one or two others, were sufficient to merit words from an irate Ferguson as the officials left the pitch at half-time, which led to his banishment to the stand.
In his absence Carlos Queiroz took to the technical area and made an early substitution, sending on the Brazilian Anderson for Pique. Greater determination was soon evident, Evra winning a free-kick with one of his bold runs down the left and Owen Hargreaves swerving it towards the top corner of the net until Jaaskelainen's leap prevented an equaliser.
The tide had turned and United looked much the more likely to score but with 17 minutes to play Carlos Tevez, playing after international duty away with Argentina, was guilty of a miss from three yards out, side-footing Evra's centre across the face of goal. When Hargreaves put another free-kick on to the roof of the net after four minutes of added time, Bolton had a rare and precious victory.Reuse content