Manchester Utd 4 Bolton 1: Ronaldo's presence a gift for Fergie

Sir Alex celebrates his 64th birthday in style as Bolton are swept away
Click to follow
The Independent Football

As far as Manchester United supporters are concerned, you can stick 2005. An "annus horribilis" is how the fanzine United We Stand described it on Sir Matt Busby Way yesterday, and with Chelsea running away with the Premiership and no Champions' League to look forward to, the new year is hardly ripe with promise either.

Or is it? United won this match at a canter, and the encouraging thing for Sir Alex Ferguson on his 64th birthday was that the team was packed with youngsters. Will we still love him when he is 64? Well, a starting line-up that can defeat such unaccommodating opponents as Bolton Wanderers without the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes and Alan Smith will certainly earn him respect.

Two strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo, another from Louis Saha and an own goal from Bruno N'Gotty pushed United comfortably ahead of Bolton, whose only reply came from Gary Speed in a rare attack. Add the fact that Ronaldo hit the post twice and you get a better idea of the home team's superiority.

"The difference is that we're taking our chances," the United manager said, referring to home games against Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers when they did not. "We're playing well, with great determination, skill and team spirit," he added.

Sam Allardyce, Ferguson's counterpart for the visitors, was less upbeat: "We got what we deserved," he said. "We looked uncomfortable defensively from the first whistle."

They did, although you would have been hard put to find a wholly optimistic United fan when the teams were announced. A central midfield of John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher did not imply creativity, but appearances proved deceptive and the home team played with such drive and verve you would have sworn Roy Keane and Bryan Robson were still at their core.

Wayne Rooney threatened twice in the first six minutes, so Bolton were living on borrowed time when United took the lead in the eighth minute. Ryan Giggs fed the overlapping Kieran Richardson on the left and the converted full-back's cross was so well crafted that N'Gotty had to go for it to prevent Saha swooping from point-blank range. But the Bolton centre-back got it all wrong and kneed the ball into his own net.

Bolton equalised unexpectedly after 33 minutes when United's defence evaporated to allow Speed an unimpeded header at the far post from Abdoulaye Faye's flick-on. But after that it was virtually one-way traffic.

Ronaldo hit the post after 39 minutes, but United regained the lead just before half-time with another goal that owed a lot to the failings of the Bolton defence. Tal Ben Haim misjudged a long ball and headed backwards to Saha, who rounded Jussi Jaaskelainen before shooting into an empty net. Ronaldo hit the post again after 65 minutes after cutting in from the right but got his reward two minutes later. It was a goal that spoke volumes for Rooney's determination. The England striker twice won 50-50 tackles before playing a one-two with Saha and then flicking a pass to his right for Ronaldo to prod the ball past Jaaskelainen. With Rooney and Ronaldo in incandescent form, United were comfortably in command, and the scoreline assumed a truer reflection of the play in stoppage time when Ronaldo tied the hapless N'Gotty in knots before thumping a shot past Jaaskelainen.

Only one thing marred a day of celebration for Ferguson. "Wayne Rooney promised me a goal for my birthday," he said, pausing for effect. "I'll have to fine him a week's wages."