If Owen Coyle, a newcomer to the Premier League, keeps Bolton Wanderers up this season and then sticks around for a while, he will have to accustom himself to days like these. One of the league's undeniably bigger clubs turn up at the Reebok, weather a storm of anything to gale-force proportions and then employ their superior quality to breeze home.
Three times now in recent years Manchester United have driven back down the M61 with a 4-0 victory tucked away (back in 1996 it was 6-0). This time, Bolton's manager claimed his side "shot ourselves in the foot" but there was more to it than that. Coyle's claims of their ascendancy were exaggerated and, in bemoaning the concession of soft goals, he did scant justice to an ability to counter-attack at speed that all the title-contenders possess.
The first of the four goals, passed precisely into his own net by left-back JLloyd Samuel, was, of course, soft in the extreme. It still raised the question of whether 11 own-goals in 32 United matches can be entirely down to opponents' incompetence. The previous 10 had been worth seven points and for a while on Saturday it seemed possible that this one would be the means by which the champions would return to the top of the table ahead of Chelsea. By the 70th minute, however, the storm was petering out and with influential performers Darren Fletcher, Nani and Dimitar Berbatov all to the fore, United ran in three more goals in 13 minutes.
At a stretch, it might be said that Bolton contributed to the second goal as well. After Johan Elmander had sustained a head injury from Nemanja Vidic's challenge, the referee Martin Atkinson stopped play, which restarted with the home side knocking the ball gently to Edwin van der Sar instead of putting it into touch. Elmander was still off the field as United broke with a flowing move that ended in Giggs finding Fletcher for a shot that Jussi Jaaskelainen could only parry into Berbatov's path for a smart finish.
Naive? Coyle was more concerned by Vidic's typically vigorous challenge, which he described as "terrible". Atkinson must have seen the incident and did not award a free-kick, so Sir Alex Ferguson would be furious if what he has called the Football Association's "dysfunctional" disciplinary unit charged his centre-half retrospectively. Remarkably, for a derby of such significance, there was not a single yellow card, although Ferguson was displeased by Sam Ricketts's tackle on Patrice Evra in the first half and would have been apoplectic if Bolton had scored from a bizarre incident just before half-time in which they were allowed to take a corner while Van der Sar was out of his goal.
A few minutes earlier, the goalkeeper had made the game's outstanding save, from Fabrice Muamba. It was one of Bolton's only two opportunites, both set up by shrewd passes from Jack Wilshere, whom Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger will surely want back at Emirates next season.
All in all, it was a highly satisfactory evening for United, the additonal bonus being to hold back key players in Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand for tomorrow's Champions' League tie against Bayern Munich, who in contrast lost not only top place in the Bundesliga but also Arjen Robben to a calf injury. "Arsenal are now four points behind us but we'll all drop points," Ferguson said. "The important thing is not to drop as many as the others." The same goes for Bolton after their safety margin was cut to five points by Hull City's victory.
Bolton (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Ricketts, Cahill, Knight, Samuel; Lee, Muamba, Cohen (Taylor, 73), Wilshere; K Davies, Elmander (Klasnic, 73). Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Riga, M Davies, O'Brien, Weiss.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Van der Sar; Neville, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher (Gibson, 80), Scholes (Carrick, 74); Valencia, Giggs (Macheda, 84), Nani; Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Park, R Da Silva, De Laet.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorks).
Man of the match: Fletcher.
Attendance: 25,370.Reuse content