Ferguson is fearful of backlash from Bolton

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Sir Alex Ferguson had good reasons for watching only part of Bolton Wanderers' Uefa Cup away leg against Sporting Lisbon last week. What little he viewed provided a reminder of the robust reception his side encountered at the Reebok in November which culminated in Bolton taking the points and Ferguson receiving a touchline ban for his comments about the referee Mark Clattenburg's response to their physical approach.

"They played a reserve team that did fantastically well [against Sporting]," Ferguson said, ahead of Bolton's arrival at Old Trafford tonight for a match from which the visitors need something in their deepening struggle against relegation. "Gary Megson will have been delighted with that performance from [what], apart from [Gary] Cahill, was his reserve team, only to lose the game in the last few minutes."

The 1-0 win in the autumn was Bolton's first under Megson and, though there have been four more since, those have been exclusively against fellow strugglers – Wigan, Birmingham, Derby and Reading. And yet the stellar performance at home to Portsmouth, with only David James standing between Megson and three points, suggests United, who can extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to three clear points going into Sunday's encounter with Liverpool, might have their work cut out.

Ferguson, for one, is surprised to see them in the relegation mix. "I thought they had got themselves clear, hit form, but in this league if you lose a couple of games you're back in there," he said. "They are fighting for survival and any team there has to fight."

Megson is sensitive to any questions about the club parting company with the striker Nicolas Anelka to Chelsea in January, which may prove to be fateful if they do drop, but Ferguson sees the striker's departure as crucial, albeit inevitable. "I think his goalscoring [14 for Bolton this season] is a lot for a team at that level, so you are going to miss that. Not easy. But the decision to sell was the fact that the offer from Chelsea was so good. He is not the type to stay long at clubs anyway. It was expected that he would leave."

That said, Bolton's Kevin Davies poses another threat to United. "He's a physical lad and we have to deal with that," said Ferguson, who also reminded his own side, after the struggle to score at Derby last weekend, that chances need to be converted. "Perhaps the forwards need to relax a little in front of goal, then the goals will come."

The goalkeeper Ben Foster is on course to maintain his place in the United side, despite the return from suspension of Tomasz Kuszczak. Bolton are without their first-choice goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen for the rest of the season. The Oman international Ali Al Habsi will deputise.

Bolton's captain Kevin Nolan admitted Megson had been right to say after Saturday's defeat at Wigan that the side would remain in the bottom three unless their performances pick up. "He's only speaking the truth. We were rightly booed off by our fans [after the Wigan game]. We are hurting as much as them."