Manchester United stumbled to the summit but, unlike Chelsea and Liverpool, they did not fall. There will be queries over a defence that somehow allowed what seemed a hopelessly-beaten Bolton side back into this game and over a forward line that ought to have throttled the life out the contest before it was an hour old. However, the questions are nothing like as fierce as those confronting Rafael Benitez this morning and, ever since gathering together his first motley collection of part-time footballers at East Stirling, Sir Alex Ferguson has understood the importance of winning first and asking questions afterwards.
The Manchester United manager, who began the day by reiterating his apology to Alan Wiley in the match programme, ended it surveying the Premier League from a familiar spot on the summit.
"We made it hard for ourselves and the last 10 minutes were a nervous occasion but we got through it which is the important thing," he said. "We should have killed this game off but we didn't and we nearly ended up regretting it - but we didn't. And with results elsewhere this has been a good day for us."
Nevertheless, once more a referee left Old Trafford with his abilities questioned. A fortnight ago it had been Wiley's fitness, yesterday it was Mark Clattenburg's refusal to allow the kind of goal Nat Lofthouse used to score for Bolton half a century ago.
Arthur Ellis or any other referee from the 1950s would probably have allowed the clash between goalkeeper and player that finished with the ball in the back of the net. Clattenburg did not. "It was a ridiculous decision by the referee," the Bolton manager, Gary Megson, reflected. "Ricardo Gardner got to the ball before Edwin van der Sar - that is clear. If that had gone in, it would have been a fantastic result for us and with a bit of fortune we would have got a point."
In truth, Bolton had required a generous helping of fortune not to have reached the hour mark hopelessly beaten. But it says something for the uncertainty surrounding a Manchester United defence that, had Gary Cahill's last minute header been directed either side of the Manchester United goalkeeper, Bolton would have drawn a game against an avalanche rather than the run of play.
Nevertheless, this is a Manchester United defence that last season anchored their drive to the title with a battery of 1-0 victories but which has kept five clean sheets in 13 games.
Ferguson has confessed to wondering how long he can keep asking Jonny Evans to understudy Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Judging from the calmness of the Belfast boy's display, that internal debate will continue in his office at Carrington. The one over the goalkeeper appears to have been decisively settled by Van der Sar's return.
In his programme notes, Ferguson gave perhaps his most honest assessment of the Wiley affair: "Our passing against Sunderland was woeful and quite out of character, which is perhaps why my feelings afterwards got the better of me with regard to the referee," he wrote with unusual contrition.
Frankly, had Clattenburg spent the afternoon in a deckchair in the Bolton penalty area, he would have been well positioned to cover the first 75 minutes. United's passing was often beautifully-measured and a shimmer from Ryan Giggs that confused two Bolton defenders was worthy of Alan Hudson's description of football as the working man's ballet. The final quarter-of-an-hour was rather earthier, more nervous and, by the end, those spectators who remained at Old Trafford were screeching for the final whistle.
Had the champions stumbled, Ferguson would have had a ready-made excuse. The markings for last Saturday's rugby league Grand Final between Leeds and St Helens were still visible on the pitch and overuse of Old Trafford's playing surface is something that has irked Ferguson in the past.
But there were times, as Dimitar Berbatov, who had dashed back to Manchester from Bulgaria after the birth of his daughter, twice sent falling volleys whistling past Jussi Jaaskelainen's post and into the Bolton keeper's body respectively, that it might have resembled a rugby league score.
If Liverpool were taunted by ill-fortune at Sunderland, United opened the afternoon caressed by it. Michael Owen's last start in the Premier League had been the debacle at Burnley; this was a rather happier affair, which opened when a weak header that, even had it been on target would scarcely have threatened Jaaskelainen's goal, was unaccountably turned into his own net by Zat Knight.
This seemed to free United from all the doubts and uncertainties that had hemmed them in against Sunderland. Their second and Antonio Valencia's first since his arrival from Wigan was the product of an extraordinarily well-judged one-two between the Ecuadorean and Gary Neville, who looked far more effective when pressing forward than he did when anchoring the back four.
Nevertheless, judging from the mouthful he gave the ball-boy for not returning the ball quickly enough, what might politely be described as his "competitive instincts" have not been dulled by age.
Sir Alex Ferguson's last confrontation with Mark Clattenburg at Bolton ended with Manchester United enduring a 1-0 defeat and Ferguson suffering a two-match touchline ban for comments directed at the official. Yesterday, Ferguson would have been perfectly happy with Clattenburg's performance – and his fitness, in the wake of Ferguson's attack on Alan Wiley's alleged lack of puff.
Minutes 1-30: As United stream forward, all Clattenburg has to do is stand on the centre-circle and jog towards the Bolton goal. Fitness is easily proved.
30th minute: Awards a free-kick on the edge of the United area for a foul by Anderson on Jlloyd Samuel. The free-kick is tamely directed at Edwin van der Sar. First decision against United.
50th minute: Clashes with Anderson again after awarding a foul against the Brazilian for a collision with Sam Ricketts.
55th minute: The only chance to award United a penalty all afternoon – when Samuel and Antonio Valencia clash – but the appeals are rightly rejected, as Clattenburg is superbly positioned.
62nd minute: Jussi Jaaskelainen is bemused by the award of a United corner after Owen has run straight into him.
71st minute: The crucial moment, when Clattenburg rules Ricardo Gardner fouled Van der Sar in the run-up to Bolton's "goal". There is a suggestion Gardner also handled.
90th minute: United are winning, so statistically should be let off with a minimum of stoppage time. Clattenburg allows four minutes, during which time Gary Cahill should have equalised.
Booking: Bolton: K Davies
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Valencia
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content