Sir Alex Ferguson may claim otherwise but all is not well at Old Trafford. Manchester United gained their first home win in the Premier League this season yesterday yet there was only belated evidence of the swagger that carried them to the title last season. Indeed, you did not need to be a Bolton supporter to suggest they were lucky. Had it not been for a mistake from Rob Styles, United could have staggered into October with only one League win. Instead, the referee erroneously awarded a penalty – there had been no foul – to provide the turning point.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored from the spot and substitute Wayne Rooney massaged the scoreline with a second 13 minutes from time. It was scant justice for Bolton, who had defended with their usual enthusiasm and could have sprung a surprise if Fabrice Muamba had converted the most obvious chance of the game just before half-time.
"It wasn't a penalty, it wasn't even close," Gary Megson, the Bolton manager, said. "It was a nonsense decision and it changed the game. We had to open up and it gave a world-class team the space to have a go at us." Even Ferguson agreed. "I was surprised. I haven't seen it again but it looked to me as though the player got a foot on the ball," he said. "I think we would have won the game OK, but when a team is sitting in front of their box and showing a lot of determination, it's difficult to bring them down." Ferguson made several significant changes. Ronaldo began his first League game of the season while a distinguished-looking bench included Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. This gave Rooney and Co a good view of a first half that showcased a problem for United this season: scoring goals.
Ronaldo, inevitably, was the focus of the home attacks. Twice he had Jussi Jaaskelainen scurrying across his goal to keep out free-kicks and he also tested the goalkeeper with a series of shots hit on the run. It was Dimitar Berbatov who had probably the best United opportunity before the interval with a header from Gary Neville's cross after 13 minutes that was too close to Jaaskelainen. The Bulgarian was more imaginative with another header after 36 minutes when he guided Carlos Tevez's cross into the path of Rio Ferdinand and the United centre-half's mis-hit volley bounced into the ground and almost over Jaaskelainen's dive to his left.
Bolton were hanging on but they should have taken the lead after 41 minutes. Gretar Steinsson crossed low from the right and the ball deflected to Muamba. The England Under-21 midfielder was seven yards out and United's goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was wrong-footed, yet he pulled his shot wide. Bolton also went close immediately after the break when Ricardo Gardner poked a shot just wide, but with Rooney, Giggs and Scholes warming up on the touchline, United stepped up the urgency and almost took the lead after 49 minutes. Neville crossed, Andy O'Brien miscued a clearance and Ronaldo turned, stretched and, off balance, just got a shot in that trickled past Jaaskelainen's dive and hit the base of the post.
United were struggling to convert their superiority until they were gifted a goal by the poor decision. Ronaldo cut in from the right in the 60th minute and Jlloyd Samuel made a textbook display of watching the ball rather than the whirling feet, timing his tackle to perfection. There was clear contact on the ball and when Mr Styles blew his whistle there appeared to be more chance of another error – a booking for a dive. Instead he pointed to the spot and Ronaldo sent Jaaskelainen the wrong way.
Bolton now had to leave their trenches and that gave United the chance to break away and score a goal of splendid simplicity and execution. Rooney began the move with a pass to Ronaldo, who drew two defenders before back-heeling. Rooney shaped to shoot, cut back to avoid the block and then curled the ball into the far corner with his right foot.