Sir Alex Ferguson's gut instincts are always to be trusted. All through this campaign the Manchester United manager has insisted that the hardest challenge would come from Arsenal rather than the new money of Chelsea and yesterday he had a feeling Bolton would push his side very hard.
With United seven points clear of Chelsea, the first is busy being proved, the second was palpably true. "I don't know how many balls I headed out but it was quite a few," Ferguson said with a relieved smile after a match in which Bolton had hurled themselves repeatedly at their unloved neighbours without reward. "We had to battle tonight but we showed qualities that are important in these types of matches."
Sam Allardyce remarked before kick-off that Bolton's habit of giving fine displays for sometimes few points had given him "an ongoing toothache". Last night, the Bolton manager's molars would have been raging. Tim Howard, whose agility under pressure has surprised even the man who bought him, made three world-class saves, Ricardo Gardner was stretchered off with a knee ligament injury that might keep him out for the remainder of the season, and at least one reasonable claim for a penalty was rejected. Pride in performance would have been a very cold consolation, although Allardyce thought that defensively his team suffered from too many lapses of concentration.
In that respect, Gardner's loss, following a clash with Darren Fletcher, was doubly serious since it exposed Bolton further on a left flank which had already looked vulnerable. Fletcher had already enjoyed plenty of freedom there and in the 24th minute, in a lull from a sustained burst of home pressure, he found Ryan Giggs on the left-hand edge of the box. The Welshman threaded through a pass to Ruud van Nistelrooy that was half-saved by Jussi Jaaskelainen but Paul Scholes turned the ricochet home from no more than a couple of yards.
This was probably closer than Van Nistelrooy was when he nodded home United's second, although again the inspiration for the goal was Giggs. Played through by Scholes, the Welshman drew the keeper like a matador faced by a nervous bull and chipped the ball goalwards from an acute angle. The Dutchman, who always knows where to place himself for maximum impact, denied Giggs a very special goal.
Ferguson had predicted that since Allardyce had rested the bulk of his players for Saturday's FA Cup tie with Tranmere, Bolton would be "revved up" for this fixture. The Manchester United manager was more right than he knew; they were supercharged.
Twice Mikaël Silvestre might have given away a penalty; once when he seemed to handle, the other when pulling back Kevin Davies as the striker ran in to turn home an expertly placed low cross from Kevin Nolan, although none of this might have mattered had Howard not been in supreme form.
Ferguson considers that his goalkeeper has been his single best performer of this campaign, which given Van Nistelrooy's endeavours is very high praise indeed. All his saves were made from distance; the first from Per Frandsen was at full stretch to his left, the second was a blazing drive from Jay-Jay Okocha that the American tipped over the bar. Midway through the second half, Okocha hammered in an even better shot, which produced an even better save.
It is three and a half years since Manchester United surrendered a two-goal lead but as Arsène Wenger can testify, two-goal leads at the Reebok are never entirely secure. But, crucially, United's defence kept Bolton at bay until the final moments when Gary Neville headed Okocha's cross into his own net. Had the goal come 10 minutes earlier, Bolton might have had the result they deserved. Javi Moreno's first match since joining the club from Atletico Madrid would have confirmed everything he had heard about the raw energy of English football, right down to the freezing rain.
Bolton Wanderers (4-1-3-2): Jaaskelainen 5; Hunt 6, N'Gotty 6, Charlton 4, Gardner 5 (Thome 5, 18); Campo 6 (Ba, 82); Nolan 6 (Moreno 6, 64), Frandsen 7, Okocha 8; Djorkaeff 7, Davies 6. Substitutes not used: Poole (gk), Giannakopoulos.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Howard 8; G Neville 6, Ferdinand 7, Silvestre 5, O'Shea 6; Fletcher 6, P Neville 5, Scholes 7, Keane 6 (Butt, 82); Giggs 8 (Fortune, 84); Van Nistelrooy 7. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Kleberson, Forlan.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury) 3.
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