Manchester United 1-0 Bolton Wanderers
Never gets tiring, does it? Stack the odds as high as you want, United will find a way to overcome them.
Dimitar Berbatov poked home a potentially priceless late winner for the league leaders, who had been frustrated for long periods by a magnificent defensive display from Bolton, while also being reduced to 10 men for a heavy challenge by Jonny Evans on Stuart Holden.
Led by inspired displays from Gary Cahill and David Wheater in the centre of defence, the Trotters rarely offered United a clear opening, but Berbatov pounced to pinch the points just as time seemed to be running out for Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Starting the first instalment of a five-match touchline ban, the United manager again had to patch up his backline. Wes Brown was shunted to right-back by the return of Evans, who joined Chris Smalling in the centre of defence. Patrice Evra continued at left-back.
With a surfeit of fit wingers, however, the United manager deployed Nani and Antonio Valencia on opposite flanks and repurposed another, Ryan Giggs, to join Michael Carrick in central midfield.
Bolton arrived at Old Trafford on the back of a six-game unbeaten run and, like United, fresh from booking a berth in this season’s FA Cup semi-finals. The Trotters struck the first blow even before kick-off; winning the toss and forcing United to flip custom and attack the Stretford End in the first period.
There was another scare for United within two minutes, as Evans’ slip allowed Johan Elmander to tee up Fabrice Muamba, but the midfielder’s clunky first touch sent the ball out of play, when a first-time shot would have posed serious questions of Edwin van der Sar.
There was no such indecision in United’s forward play moment s later, however. Wayne Rooney needed no second invitation to pull the trigger from 25 yards, and his powerful drive arrowed just a yard wide of Jussi Jaaskelainen’s top corner.
Both sides continued to trade early blows, and the Reds might have had a penalty when Cahill flung himself to block a Chicharito shot, and the Mexican’s half-hit effort was diverted wide by the defender’s flailing hand.
Those claims were waved away by referee Andre Marriner, who found himself further subjected to home protestations soon afterwards when he deemed Evans to have fouled Kevin Davies just outside the United area. The Reds’ ire was soothed, however, when van der Sar comfortably clutched Martin Petrov’s set-piece.
To and fro, the game continued to swing, with both sides’ ambition coming at the cost of composure in possession, but not chances. Rooney’s powerfully volley from a Valencia cross was well fielded by Jaaskelainen, while Evra alertly blocked Elmander’s effort. In riposte, a neat exchange between Valencia and Rooney culminated in the striker’s cross being turned wide by Chicharito.
The front pairing’s link-up bore signs of their increased familiarity, having started five of the last six games in tandem, but the visitors scarcely allowed either striker a chink of space to exploit. Perhaps mindful of this, Rooney sent another vicious long-range effort scorching over the bar shortly before half-time.
Unexpectedly, Sir Alex used the interval to freshen up his side’s approach, introducing Berbatov and Fabio at the expense of Chicharito and Brown.
The move prompted a spell of sustained United pressure early in the second period, but still the visitors held firm, marshalled superbly by the central defensive pairing of Cahill and Wheater. The latter might have given his side the lead on the hour mark, but missed Petrov’s corner despite rising above his marker. As Bolton enjoyed a spell of pressure, Petrov’s drilled cross then narrowly cleared van der Sar’s crossbar, though the Dutchman assuredly watched it fly by.
Still the visitors pressed, leaving relatively open space behind them. Carrick performed a heroic block to repel Davies’ shot, then in the same passage of play Nani led a breakaway which culminated in Rooney’s pull-back being cleared by the omnipresent Cahill.
Berbatov had scarcely been afforded a sight of goal since his introduction, but the Bulgarian almost broke the deadlock out of nothing with 20 minutes remaining; steering a snapshot just past the top corner from 20 yards, with Jaaskelainen rooted. Berbatov was then released by a superb through-ball from Valencia, but Cahill hunted down United’s number nine and executed a stunning challenge to hook the ball to safety.
Just as the Reds were seemingly turning the screw and making chances, however, Evans and Holden contested a 50-50 challenge from which the Northern Ireland defender emerged to a red card from referee Andre Marriner, while the American midfielder left the field on a stretcher with several of his team-mates in visible distress. Though the Stretford End howled its displeasure, Evans' relative resignation intimated knowledge of his wrongdoing.
Elmander slammed the subsequent free-kick just past van der Sar’s post, but it was still United who pressed, and Rooney brought a smart save from Jaaskelainen with a low, near-post effort. The danger of committing so much to the pursuit of victory was underlined, however, when substitute Matty Taylor, on for Holden, planted a free header straight at van der Sar.
Undeterred, United continued to throw caution to the wind. Jaaskelainen parried a Nani shot to safety, but moments later was less convincing in repeating the feat when the Portuguese winger again chanced his arm from just outside the box. Pouncing at the perfect time, Berbatov steered the loose ball under the Finnish stopper to send Old Trafford into delirium.
Credit is unquestionaly due to Bolton for their part in a hard-fought encounter, while well-wishes will also be extended to Holden for a speedy recovery, but the importance of this victory to United's hopes of a 19th league title cannot be overstated.
Edwin van der Sar - Despite the defensive changes before him again, the big Dutchman marshalled his backline superbly and was exposed just the once, when Taylor's weak header thankfully went straight to him.
Wes Brown - Little play went down the Bolton left or United right in the first period, so Wes didn't have a tremendous amount of action prior to his withdrawal with an injury.
Chris Smalling - Superb once again. The big defender coped admirably with the physical challenge posed by Bolton's forwards and played a major role in a big clean sheet.
Jonny Evans - A mixed afternoon for Evans. Nervy early on, the Northern Irishman grew in stature before unfortunately, but correctly receiving his marching orders for a studs-up challenge on Stuart Holden.
Patrice Evra - The Frenchman gave his all in a physical mis-match with Yohan Elmander, and also bombed forward to great effect down the left flank.
Antonio Valencia - His first start since mid-September, but it didn't show. Not too much of his usual wingplay to savour, but a couple of lovely straight through-balls and some meaty challenges in central areas.
Michael Carrick - Struggled to pick killer passes amid a packed Trotters midfield, but otherwise enjoyed an excellent shift in defensive midfield, then dropped back to central defence to cover in Evans' absence.
Ryan Giggs - Even at 37, the veteran winger comfortably lasted 90 minutes outside his comfort zone in the heart of midfield, and pulled plenty of creative strings for the Reds.
Nani - Deployed on the left wing, Nani was United's most threatening attacker for long periods - and it was his parried shot which prompted Berbatov's priceless late winner.
Wayne Rooney - Chanced his arm from distance on a couple of occasions and gave his all in pursuit of victory, regularly flinging crosses into the box from wide areas and showed good link-ups with Chicharito and Berbatov.
Javier Hernandez - The little Mexican came close with a pair of first half shots, and was unfortunate to make way at half-time as Sir Alex sought to add height to his side.
Fabio (for Brown, 46) - Wasn't hugely involved for much of the second period, but was neat and tidy and led plenty of late raids down the right flank.
Berbatov (for Hernandez, 46) - Took a little while to feel his way into the game, but after one shot fizzed wide and Cahill's saving tackle denied him, the Bulgarian made it third time lucky by tucking away United's late winner.