James Lawton: Ferguson content in his natural habitat

Bolton Wanderers 0 Manchester United 1
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The Independent Football

The old war lord probably wanted something a little more emphatic, even imperious. Something in the way of a crushing statement of the inevitable, but then, as Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to say, the important thing was that Manchester United had, at last, reached their natural comfort zone, the leadership of the Premier League.

Maybe, he seemed to be saying, they could pull up a few chairs and feel, as they should, more at home. In such circumstances no one does serenity quite like the master of Old Trafford.

Earlier, his face, from time to time, had shown some considerable concern, not least when he felt obliged to send in not one but two old heads to break a deadlock that had stretched into the last quarter of a match that had always smacked of attrition rather than some triumphal march by the deepest and most talented squad in English football.

Depth and talent were, in the end, the moving forces of a result that, whatever the details of performance, will no doubt weigh as heavily on Liverpool tonight in their derby duel with Everton, as they attempt to regain the title lead if not complete control of their own destiny, as it did on United's only other possible rivals, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Arsenal, after their own dogged refusals to yield any ground.

Most oppressive of all for those who still dream of separating United from their chances of landing a hat-trick of championships was the sense that Ferguson, more than any of his challengers, has such abundant means to fight his way out of a corner.

There was no doubt he was in such a situation when he signalled for Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes (combined age just eight months short of 70) with 21 minutes to go. Neither Giggs, who had inflicted such damage on Chelsea six days earlier, nor Scholes managed to produce the killing stroke but between them they shortened quite dramatically United's chances of finding a way to win. They injected such amounts of competitive intelligence that you could see their younger colleagues grow around them.

For Ferguson the prime satisfaction was that he could go into such a psychologically vital game without such as Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney with the utmost confidence that Bolton's predictable intransigence, and absolute commitment to the challenge of mere survival, could sooner or later be broken down.

That it took until the 90th minute, and with the prime mover Carlos Tevez having produced a performance that more than anything suggested why Ferguson, even in such inflationary days, might be reluctant to part with more than £30m for his services, may have been taxing on the nerves, but this was not so evident later when the United manager cheerfully agreed that he had been on the point of withdrawing the Argentine.

Tevez is, though, a worry that seems to be moving inexorably towards an unhappy collision for a player whose efforts have created a warm place in the regard of United fans.

Here there were times when United yearned for the sheer scale of Rooney's game. These came most powerfully when the scurrying Tevez produced a particularly leaden touch, a problem that was intensified up to the moment of breakthrough by body language from Dimitar Berbatov that could only have become more discouraging if someone had yanked off his gloves.

However, if neither Tevez nor Berbatov could find anything like a consistent impact, their best instincts, it turned out, were not entirely locked in hibernation. This emerged when Bolton's Andy O'Brien and Sébastien Puygrenier sold themselves completely when attempting to converge on Tevez, who skipped away with absolute conviction before crossing quite perfectly to the head of the unattended Berbatov.

Here, certainly, was the inevitability Ferguson will crave right up the last moment before he leaves the game.

Captain Gary Neville, whose application was never in question even though there were times when he was turned easily enough to make you wonder how long he will withstand the rampaging claims of his young Brazilian club-mate Rafael, warmed to the theme with some relish.

He pointed out the growing sense that this is a team which simply cannot be separated from its belief that victory is a right at any point in a difficult match. "We've had some problems, and some pressure," said Neville, "but look, we are exactly where we wanted to be after going to play for the World Club Championship in Japan."

United would no doubt have been less sanguine had Tevez's persistence and Berbatov's gunfighter relish for the kill not finally beaten the extraordinary resolve, and reflexes, of the imperturbable Jussi Jaaskelainen. Yet it was also true that it was only the exceptional nerve of the Finn, especially in the face of some vicious and inspired free-kicks from Cristiano Ronaldo, that kept Bolton and their smothering strategy alive. Had the goal come a little earlier, Wanderers might have felt the need to score one themselves.

Such abandon could have been painful to see – and unlikely to produce much more than extra evidence from United's young Jonny Evans that the outstanding partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic is underpinned by back-up of a remarkable composure.

There was another hint thatUnited may indeed be about to settle into clothes worn by natural-born leaders. Ronaldo didn't score. How-ever, he did something even more startling. He lost the ball, then won it back with a tackle of surgical brilliance.

Goal: Berbatov (90) 0-1.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, O'Brien, Samuel; Basham; Davies, Muamba, Gardner (Puygrenier, 83), Taylor; Makakula (Obadeyi, 64). Substitutes not used: Bogdan (gk), Riga, Smolarek, Shittu, Sinclair.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Vidic, Evans, O'Shea; Fletcher (Giggs, 69), Carrick, Anderson (Scholes, 69), Ronaldo; Tevez, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Park, Nani, Welbeck, Chester.

Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).

Booked: Bolton Makakula; Manchester United O'Shea.

Man of the match: Jaaskelainen.

Attendance: 26,021.

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