Smith saves point but United are miles behind

Bolton Wanderers 2 - Manchester United 2
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The Independent Football

Bolton Wanderers have not beaten Manchester United at home since 1978, but they came mighty close yesterday. With the game seconds away from its finish they led thanks to a controversial goal from Les Ferdinand, only for the visitors to equalise with virtually the last kick of the match.

Bolton Wanderers have not beaten Manchester United at home since 1978, but they came mighty close yesterday. With the game seconds away from its finish they led thanks to a controversial goal from Les Ferdinand, only for the visitors to equalise with virtually the last kick of the match.

Nicky Hunt, Bolton's fullback, was credited with the last touch, although David Bellion and Alan Smith might argue otherwise, but it undoubtedly saved United from a weekend of inquests. Even with this draw they are nine points behind the Premiership leaders, Arsenal, and at this rate the chances of their winning the title might have gone before the leaves are off the trees.

Living in Manchester, Sir Alex Ferguson knows about it pouring rather than raining, but the United manager has been contending with a monsoon's worth of injuries. Only five players went on international duty last week and three of them - Louis Saha, Gary Neville and John O'Shea - returned crocked, so Wes Brown and Ruud Van Nistelrooy were rushed off the treatment table.

You could almost see the rust flaking off, and although United had a greater share of possession at the start there was little fluency, and it was a surprise when Smith added a bit of point to a game of midfield meandering with a shot after 14 minutes that thumped into Jussi Jaaskelainen's midriff.

The first spark from Bolton was a piece of trickery from Jay-Jay Okocha that had Roy Keane kicking at thin air, and they followed that up with a series of crosses against an unsure visiting back four that culminated with Tim Howard punching unconvincingly. The ball fell to Hunt, but the full-back's shot was high. Spurred, United would have taken the lead but for Jaaskelainen's save from Paul Scholes, and when the Bolton keeper leapt to his left to deny Van Nistelrooy, there was a sense of momentum building up for the men in red. It was a correct impression, because on 43 minutes United took the lead.

Gabriel Heinze had already impressed with his agility in defence, and he demonstrated his quick feet when Ryan Giggs's corner was met at the far post by Mikaël Silvestre's head. There are full-backs who get a rush of blood when they get a scent of goal; instead, Heinze jumped in the air to volley left-footed into the net.

Bolton, largely anonymous in the first half, began the second more forcefully, and within five minutes they equalised. A free-kick was rolled to Okocha, whose shot was neither accurate nor powerful but took on a greater potency when it became a pass to the penalty spot. Nolan stuck out a foot, the ball bounced off Howard's body and looped up for the Wanderers midfielder to head into an empty net.

Suddenly, it was all Bolton; Kevin Davies flashed a shot just wide and another shot ricocheted just past a post, so it was not a surprise when Ferguson tried to change the pattern with the introduction of Cristian Ronaldo for the ineffectual Kleberson.

The desired effect almost came immediately when Ronaldo crashed a shot against the bar, but that was tame compared to a climax that had both sets of defenders complaining about alleged fouls and two goals that were as untidy as a rubbish tip.

The first came after 89 minutes when Silvestre and Howard got themselves into a terrible tangle of indecision, neither took the opportunity to clear and Ferdinand nipped in. A Bolton win? Another tangle at the other end denied them and ruined their 100 per cent home record.

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