For once, depleted United happy to have international break

Manchester United 1 Bolton 0
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The Independent Online

International breaks? Don't you just hate them. As players disperse to all parts of the globe, invariably returning jet-lagged, injured or both, it is their clubs that have to pick up the pieces. Any pre-break domestic momentum may have been destroyed, too.

Yet right now, as the Premier League slugfest approaches its climax, it is just what Manchester United have been praying for. No club-versus-country row this time. Sir Alex Ferguson, a serial critic of the demands of the international calender, has taken the deepest of breaths and welcomed it with open arms.

And he will hold his breath. Should any of his star performers arrive back at Old Trafford unfit for the resumption of United's league programme, against West Ham United at Upton Park on 2 April, he might regret what he wished for. He can ill afford any additions to his extensive casualty list.

For the moment, though, Ferguson can rest easy during the precious downtime. The brutal truth is that United are pooped, running on empty and somehow, perhaps only through sheer cussedness, clinging on to their lead at the top of the league.

That they increased their advantage – from three points ahead of Arsenal to five – on Saturday was more down to the North London side only drawing with West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns than any power display by United against Bolton Wanderers, their fellow FA Cup semi-finalists, at Old Trafford.

A 21st goal of the season from Dimitar Berbatov, with two minutes remaining, rescued the cause after Jonny Evans had been dismissed for a late tackle on Stuart Holden. Jussi Jaaskelainen fumbled Nani's low drive and the Bulgarian snaffled the rebound.

However, it failed to mask United's general listlessness. "We have had five massive games in the past few weeks," Ferguson said. "Two games against Marseilles [in the Champions League], we've been to Chelsea, we've been to Liverpool and we've played Arsenal in the FA Cup.

"It's a hell of a programme and these lads really deserve praise for that. We're fantastic when it comes to gritting our teeth and getting something out of dead or losing situations. Another bonus is two weeks rest, two weeks to patch up the injuries. The international break is absolutely fantastic timing for us."

Nani warmed to the theme, too. "It was an important win," the Portugal winger said. "We can now breathe a bit and we can recover some of our injured players."

Bolton are no mugs any more, Owen Coyle having added finesse to the muscle that he found at the Reebok Stadium when he arrived as manager in January last year. Unbeaten in six matches prior to their visit to Old Trafford, and through to a Cup semi-final with Stoke City at Wembley, they now represent the sternest of challenges for any title contender.

Yet United will have to show more than just resilience if they are to fend off Arsenal over the league run-in and will have to rediscover a bit of spark, too, for their continuing campaigns in the FA Cup and Champions League. The treble, shades of 1999, is still on but looking tougher by the day.

At least Wayne Rooney, slowly but surely, is recapturing his form. Deeper and deeper he dropped against Bolton, foraging for possession and often using it wisely. His reawakening is encouraging and he revealed that a deep yearning for United to take a 19th league title, surpassing Liverpool's 18, is also driving him on.

"It's something I've been thinking about a lot," Rooney said. "I'm from Liverpool and grew up an Everton fan so to be part of the team that wins a record title and overtakes Liverpool would mean so much."

If United are to ultimately usurp their Merseyside rivals, they will have to do it without the services of Evans for the next three matches. His challenge on Holden was more poorly timed than malicious and the lack of the usual post-match red-card hysteria told the tale.

Scorer: Manchester United Berbatov 88

Subs: Manchester United Fabio 6 (Brown, h/t), Berbatov 5 (Hernandez, h/t).

Bolton Chung-yong 5 (Sturridge, 60), Taylor 6 (Holden, 78), Klasnic (Muamba, 90).

Sent off: Manchester United Evans

Man of match Rooney Match rating 6

Possession Man United 58% Bolton 42%

Attempts on target Man United 8 Wolves 7

Referee A Marriner (Birmingham) Att 75,486



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