Manchester United 2 Bolton Wanderers 0: Ronaldo overhauls Best record to spur United's title charge

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The Independent Football

There are no illusions about the real business which lies ahead, but the regulation work undertaken by a Manchester United side to go three points clear at the top of the Premier League with a prototype defence and a scattering of fringe players provided a mighty declaration of intent last night.

With a full sense of Old Trafford theatre, the night again belonged to Cristiano Ronaldo, who, having been handed the captaincy for the first time, broke George Best's record for a United winger of 32 goals in a season with two first-half strikes inside 19 minutes. They included another of those unfathomable dipping free-kicks, bearing out Sir Alex Ferguson's contention that Ronaldo now surpasses David Beckham with a dead ball at his feet.

But if, as many believe, it is the depth of United's squad which really will tip the scales in the title contest with Arsenal, resting Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes, trying a new defence in readiness for Liverpool's arrival in three days' time and still winning at a stroll certainly rammed home the point.

Chelsea's dropped points last night do not remove them from the equation, Ferguson said last night – "they hold the key because they play us and Arsenal at home and they have a very good home record," he said. "It's squeaky bum time and we'll be going to bed at night praying." But United's ability to dispense with struggling, physical sides is something Arsenal currently lack.

In Ronaldo, 33 goals to the good, they also have a force which few can match for consistent brilliance. "There's no-one who can do better in the game today," Ferguson said after watching his two-goal salvo which was a near-mirror image of the way he despatched Portsmouth in United's most complete exhibition of the season two months ago. His two early goals on each occasion included a characteristic dipping free-kick.

There could have been more. Ferguson raged against Nani's profligacy after he ran through and fired over in the game's later stages and there were two brilliant saves by Bolton's stand-in Omani keeper Ali Al-Habsi. If only Rooney, who has not scored at home in the Premier League since October, could recover his confidence then Ferguson would have all the aces.

But United will dwell on the way the playing resources the manager has been eulogising all season allowed him to tinker ahead of the Liverpool game on Sunday, one which Rio Ferdinand seems likely to miss with a back injury. Gerard Pique was tried out in his place, despite his travails in United's 1-0 defeat at the Reebok in November, and Owen Hargreaves played at right-back, lest Wes Brown should be needed at centre-back.

Tomasz Kuszczak provided more evidence of Ferguson's options. It was expected that the goalkeeper might be left out for Ben Foster but three fine saves, the best a brilliant finger-tip effort to defy substitute Nicky Hunt's 40-yard effort, laid to rest some of the doubt raised by his role in the FA Cup debacle against Portsmouth.

Some of Bolton's challenges bore out Ferguson's continued insistence in the programme notes that his players need protection against "too many opponents [who] don't know how to tackle properly." But the visitors' defensive frailties made life easy in the first half. Matthew Taylor half cleared Ronaldo's header from a Nani corner and sent it straight back to the Portuguese winger who despatched it, right-footed, for United's opener.

Abdoulaye Méité, hapless against Carlos Tevez and removed at half time, committed the crass challenge on Ronaldo which allowed him to double his account with a swerving, right-foot free-kick.

Gary Megson, the Bolton manager, said his side were still talking about that free kick – "a bit of genius" – at full time and was happy that his side had created "more chances than we've had in quite a few games." Bolton had not looked like a bottom-three team, Megson added. But after five league defeats on the trot, he'll be saying his prayers just like Ferguson.

Goals: Ronaldo (9) 1-0; Ronaldo (19) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; O'Shea, Vidic (Brown, 59), Pique, Hargreaves; Ronaldo, Anderson (Scholes, 70), Fletcher, Nani; Tevez, Saha (Rooney, 70). Substitutes not used: Evra, Foster (gk).

Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Al-Habsi, Steinsson, A O'Brien, Méité (Hunt, h-t), Gardner; J O'Brien, McCann, Guthrie (Stelios, 81), M Taylor; Diouf Davies. Substitutes not used: Campo, Walker (gk), Rasiak.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Bolton A O'Brien, Steinsson.

Man of the match: Tevez.

Attendance: 75,476.