Dimitar Berbatov poked in an 87th minute goal to give Manchester United a precious victory and a valuable three points against Bolton and extend their lead at the top over Arsenal who were held to a 2-2 draw at West Bromwich Albion.
Ferguson, who was serving a five match touchline ban, was watching from the stands as he decided to give Valencia his first league start since September after his recovery from a career threatening ankle injury. With Nani handling things on the other wing, Giggs was forced to start in central midfield alongside Michael Carrick. Chris Smalling was in charge of the defence alongside Johnny Evans while Wes Brown and Patrice Evra played at right back and left back respectively.
Bolton, enjoying a run of six unbeaten games, were the first to create a chance as a slip up from Evans allowed Elmander to set up Muamba, whose first touch was a bit too heavy and didn’t get a chance to test Van Der Sar. Van Der Sar then handled a Martin Petrov freekick with ease and Daniel Sturridge failed to convert a tough chance as the visitors were putting the pressure on the league leaders. United’s first chance came on the half hour mark where Rooney unleashed a volley from a Valencia cross but it hardly threatened Jussi Jaaskelainen. Rooney and Valencia combined again and Rooney cut back a cross for Hernandez but the Mexican couldn’t keep the near post effort on target. Rooney continued probing as he unleashed another long range effort over the bar as the game remained goalless at half time.
Ferguson used the break to bring in Berbatov for Hernandez and the fresh legs of Fabio at right back for Wes Brown. United looked rejuvenated and dominated possession in the next phase of the game. But Bolton didn’t crack as the defensive pairing of Wheater and Cahill made things difficult for United. Berbatov was caught offside on a couple of occasions as United were beginning to wear a frustrated look. Wheater then rose above his marker to head a corner from Petrov but that didn’t threaten Van Der Sar’s goal. Petrov then almost came close himself as his cross just flew over the crossbar. Berbatov made an attempt with a snap-shot but it was marginally wide of the post. The Red Devils continued to attack and Valencia’s through ball put Berbatov in space but Cahill outsprinted and made an outstanding tackle to keep the game goalless. A fierce but fascinating game then turned ugly as Evans made a rash tackle on Stuart Holden leaving the American writhing in pain. Evans was shown the red card while Holden had to be carried off on a stretcher.
Elmander slammed the subsequent freekick just wide of the post as Bolton were seeking victory. But United, undeterred by the loss of Evans continued throwing caution to the wind as Rooney forced Jaaskelainen into a smart save. With three minutes to go, the game looked to be heading for a draw but United, as they had done it a million times before, scored when it mattered the most. Jaaskelainen couldn’t hold onto a cross from Nani and Berbatov made him pay as he pounced on the spill and steered the ball home for his 21st goal of the season! United 1 Bolton 0!
The win took them to 63 points, five ahead of Arsenal who have a game in hand, and unless United slip up further, they are well on course for a record breaking 19th league title.