Bolton Wanderers 1 Manchester United 2: Wily old fox Ferguson leads the charge to snatch ultimate prize

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The Independent Online

First, an apology. These columns may have given the impression that Sir Alex Ferguson was a doddering has-been whose shelf-life expired several years ago. Now we accept that he is the wily old fox guiding Manchester United to a new era of greatness.

An exaggeration, but if the candidates for the England manager's job have been bemused by the speed at which perception has built them up and knocked them down in recent weeks, they have been in the slow lane compared to Ferguson. A few weeks ago we seemed to be counting the days until the great man's departure from Old Trafford; now the calculations are of a different nature.

United cannot catch Chelsea, can they? Probably not, but the very fact the question is being asked is a gift after a season of seemingly grinding predictability at the Premiership's summit.

Visits to Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers could be ambushes on Chelsea's road to retaining the title and on 29 April there is the potential for a confrontation that even Sky Sports will not be able to over-hype, when United visit Stamford Bridge. If Ferguson's team win their remaining six matches, four of which are at home, they might just pinch the prize, and the likelihood of that will be reinforced if they overcome Arsenal at Old Trafford next Sunday.

Ferguson described that meeting as "a massive game", but this win at Bolton was of comparable size against a team who had lost just once at the Reebok this season and who had conceded only seven Premiership goals.

"It's our best result of the season, maybe," he said, and one that he could savour in private because this was a personal triumph as well as a collective one.

Ferguson chose again to go for the greater mobility of Louis Saha rather than the sniper-like ruthlessness of Ruud van Nistelrooy and was rewarded with goals from both after the latter finally emerged from the bench.

The close-range strike was Van Nistelrooy's 24th goal of the season and his 150th for United. "When I am in this position, all I can do is go on and get goals," he said. "I always try to do that, whether I am on the pitch for one minute or 90. I do my best and if a chance pops up, I have to be there. It is nice when it all works out and to reach 150 goals for the club by scoring two winners in a week just makes me even more proud.

"I signed for United less than five years ago, so to have scored 150 already is more than I could ever have dreamed of."

Given that Bolton had taken the lead through Kevin Davies after United's central defence had evaporated, it was a success for Ferguson's side that spoke as much for character as talent. Certainly it was that fortitude under pressure that impressed Sammy Lee, the Bolton assistant manager, who can recall Liverpool charging from nowhere to take the title in 1982.

"If anybody doubts Manchester United's physical capabilities they are making a schoolboy error," he said. "Mentally and technically they are very strong and that's been going back a number of years. Those people who thought the title was over are maybe having second thoughts now."

Lee agreed that an attack that comprised Saha, Van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs had run Bolton off their feet in the closing stages and there are fears that Saturday's game could prove a microcosm of Wanderers' season; a good start compromised by a conclusion hamstrung by weariness.

The club captain, Kevin Nolan, said it would be a "disaster" if Bolton fail to qualify for Europe this season and, while Lee would not concur to that extreme, he did acknowledge the significance of the blow.

"It would be a very, very big disappointment for everyone involved in the club," he said. "But let's be positive. We have eight games and we firmly believe we can go on and achieve the position we feel we deserve."

Whether United deserve first place is a different matter and one that will not concern Ferguson, who would happily be portrayed as a pickpocket if he could steal off with his ninth title. And he might just do it.

Goals: Davies (26) 1-0; Saha (33) 1-1; Van Nistelrooy (78) 1-2.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; O'Brien (Hunt, 74), Ben Haim, N'Gotty, Pedersen; Faye; Nolan, Okocha, Speed (Diouf, 87), Stelios; Davies (Borgetti, 87). Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Nakata.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Silvestre; Ronaldo (Park, 89), Fletcher (Van Nistelrooy, 61), O'Shea, Giggs; Rooney, Saha. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Evra, Pique.

Bookings: Bolton: Faye; Man Utd: Ronaldo, Rooney.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Man of the match: Saha.

Attendance: 27,718.

Game on: Run-in for the top two

* CHELSEA

Sunday 9 April West Ham United (h)

Saturday 15 April Bolton Wanderers (a)

Monday 17 April Everton (h)

Saturday 29 April Manchester United (h)

Tuesday 2 May Blackburn Rovers (a)

Sunday 7 May Newcastle United (a)

* MANCHESTER UNITED

Sunday 9 April Arsenal (h)

Friday 14 April Sunderland (h)

Monday 17 April Tottenham Hotspur (a)

Sunday 23 April Middlesbrough (h)

Saturday 29 April Chelsea (a)

Sunday 7 May Charlton (h)

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