Manchester United are up to their old tricks again.
Down to 10 men after Jonny Evans was sent off for a dreadful tackle that saw the unlucky Stuart Holden depart on a stretcher with a badly gashed knee, they left it until two minutes from the end to snatch a winner against a Bolton Wanderers side that deserved a point.
The visitors deserved no more than that, though the United attack misfired so badly for most of the game they were entitled to hope their luck would hold until the end. Instead Dimitar Berbatov secured three points with a close-range tap-in after the normally reliable Jussi Jaaskelainen fumbled a shot from Nani. Berbatov had been sent on to shore up the defence and ended up winning the match. That's the sort of luck, or judgement, that can win titles.
As with the Champions League win in midweek this was not the most slick or convincing of United displays, though at this stage of the season the result is all that counts. With Arsenal held to a draw the lead at the top of the Premier League has increased to five points, and in a week that has brought a touchline ban for their manager, another couple of centre-halves going missing, two more meetings with Chelsea and an FA Cup semi‑final with Manchester City at Wembley, United's ability to stagger onwards and upwards through all sorts of adversity can only be admired.
"We've just come through five massive games, we've had a hell of a programme and we will be glad of the international break for a rest," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "It wasn't a top performance but we never gave in, even going down to 10 men seemed to galvanise us. No other club in the country has got that character, that fantastic ability to get something from a dead situation."
For all that, United will have to work on their attacking cohesion to keep making progress in the bigger games between now and the end of the season. Wayne Rooney, as ever, is the key. Contrary to reports, he is not yet back to his best, just playing with more aggression and purpose than he was in the earlier part of the season. He is still choosing a surprising number of wrong options, becoming annoyed with himself in the process, and whether paired with Javier Hernández or Berbatov, as he was in either half here, there is no obvious understanding at the moment and no consistently successful partnership emerging.
Both sides had chances in an open yet fairly uneventful first half, with Rooney going close with a couple of firm drives and Holden and Daniel Sturridge failing to make the most of brief opportunities at the other end. Perhaps the closest thing to a goal before the interval was from a well worked move by United, when Antonio Valencia sent Rooney behind the Bolton defence, only for Hernández to shoot wide from the six-yard line from the cutback.
The Mexican was withdrawn for the second half in favour of Berbatov, Ferguson offering the explanation that injury to Wes Brown threatened to leave United short of height in defensive situations. A somewhat forlorn figure of late, not required against Arsenal or Marseille, Berbatov's first two contributions were to run offside and his third was to miscontrol a promising pass from Valencia. His next was to send a sidefoot shot inches wide from Rooney's lay-off.
It was the sort of chance he might have put away with full match sharpness, and even with 20 minutes left it appeared it might be an important miss. The same was true a couple of minutes later when Berbatov briefly got goalside of Gary Cahill with Jaaskelainen to beat, only to hesitate fractionally and allow the defender to make a recovering tackle.
When United went down to 10 men a couple of minutes after that, the referee Andre Marriner having no option but to dismiss Evans for his studs-up tackle on Holden, their options became even more limited with Michael Carrick pressed into service as emergency centre-half, yet their attacking efforts increased.
Matt Taylor should have done better with a free header that was Bolton's best chance of breaking the deadlock, before first Rooney, then Nani forced saves from Jaaskelainen. Nani's second attempt in as many minutes produced a stinging shot the goalkeeper could not hold and Berbatov was on hand to snaffle the rebound.
"You can never rest against United," a resigned Owen Coyle said. "They have world-class players who keep going, we've seen it so often before. Even though we had a numerical advantage after the sending off we missed Stuart in central midfield, his loss had a big effect on us."
Holden missed the end of last season after a Nigel de Jong tackle broke his leg this time last year, and the American deserves to avoid another lengthy lay-off, particularly as Bolton have a Wembley semi-final coming up. "I don't know if there was any malice in the challenge, both players were committed to winning the ball," Coyle said. "The knee was open, that's what gave the other players such a fright, but we are hoping there is no break or ligament damage."
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
TONY KAYE, Observer reader It was a great result but the game itself was nothing to write home about. Credit to Bolton, they came and had a real go at us, but we looked short of ideas after two big games. It's good to see Rooney looking like his old self again – I'd like to see him moving back into the midfield more often to play the Keane role. The league is ours to lose, and past history shows we're good at getting over the finishing line, but with all the other games and our injuries it will be tough. Final word to Berbatov – he should be playing more games. He's had an exceptional season and showed his worth again here.
The fan's player ratings Van der Sar 7; Evra 6, Brown 6, Smalling 7, Evans 5; Giggs 7 (F da Silva ht 6), Carrick 5, Nani 8, Valencia 6; Rooney 8, Hernández 6 (Berbatov ht 8)
ADAM ORR, Observer reader It's so disappointing to hold out for 88 minutes and then concede a soft one. It wasn't as if we parked the bus, we went toe-to-toe with the potential champions, played well and created some good chances, which is encouraging. Matt Taylor had a great chance just before they scored when he had a free header but put it straight at Van der Sar. I think the sending-off affected us more than them as Holden had to go off – hopefully he won't miss the FA Cup semi‑final. Elmander had a good game despite playing at right-midfield, and Wheater and Cahill were solid at the back.
The fan's player ratings Jaaskelainen 6; Robinson 7, Wheater 8, Cahill 8, Steinsson 7; Petrov 6, Muamba 5 (Klasnic 90 n/a), Holden 7 (Taylor 78 6), Elmander 8; Davies 6, Sturridge 6 (Lee 60 7)
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