Bolton 0 Man Utd 1
Dimitar Berbatov’s last-minute winner against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium sent Manchester United to the Barclays Premier League summit for the first time this season.
Bolton goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen looked like denying the Red Devils with a superb individual display.
But, after repelling three ferocious Cristiano Ronaldo free-kicks, Jaaskelainen was eventually beaten as Carlos Tevez wriggled free of the Trotters defence to cross for Berbatov, who powered home a six-yard header.
Berbatov’s effort was enough to see United leapfrog Liverpool, who will now look to reclaim top spot by beating Everton at Anfield on Monday, and show why Alex Ferguson Ferguson was willing to pay £30.75m for the Bulgarian.
At the other end, United also equalled Chelsea’s record of 10 successive clean sheets.
Having claimed yesterday Jonny Evans and Tevez were major doubts, Ferguson must have been delighted to learn the pair had come through morning fitness tests and instantly named them in his starting line-up.
Not that either of them shone in a dismal opening 35 minutes for the champions.
Faced with a Bolton side content to sit back and see what their opponents could throw at them, United’s response was disappointing.
Too many passes went astray, with Anderson and the normally reliable Michael Carrick among the chief culprits.
One Gary Neville pass to Darren Fletcher allowed the Scotland international to cut a cross back for Ronaldo, whose header bounced straight to Jaaskelainen. But other than that, United were bereft.
Bolton were not much better, although Gary Megson seems to have unearthed an interesting character in Congo-born Portugal international Ariza Makukula, who arrived on loan from Benfica yesterday.
Anyone willing to barge straight through Nemanja Vidic must be brave and his cheery smile as referee Andre Marriner produced the yellow card suggested the Serbian’s hard-man reputation was not going to trouble him.
Indeed, later on Makukula caught Vidic with another high tackle that left the United man rubbing his side gingerly and by that time, the burly striker had seen Edwin van der Sar pluck one of his headers away from goal too.
Fabrice Muamba had a decent shot saved by the veteran Dutchman but it was not until the countdown to half-time had begun that United came to life.
The callowness of Chris Basham’s youth lured him into a tackle on Berbatov that it was unwise to make. Quiet prior to that point, Ronaldo let fly with a vicious free-kick that Jaaskelainen did superbly to keep out.
In the flurry that followed, Anderson – who is still to score in 18 months with the Red Devils – let fly from 30 yards. Again, Jaaskelainen was in exactly the right position to make an excellent save.
United were expected to start the second period with an extra sense of purpose. Instead, with Makukula continuing to prove a handful, it was Bolton who set the pace.
Davies beat Van der Sar with a looping header after Jlloyd Samuel had provided the cross but the Bolton skipper turned in anguish as the ball dropped onto the roof of the net.
Finally the Red Devils roused themselves, with Ronaldo supplying the ammunition with a ferocious free-kick that Jaaskelainen bundled away and was thankful to Makukula for the clearance that followed.
Two left-wing surges from Ronaldo followed but on both occasions, the end product was poor. The first pass to Berbatov reached the Bulgarian but the pace of it was so limited a posse of Bolton defenders were around the former Tottenham forward by the time he touched it.
The second, to Tevez, lacked accuracy and the home defence cleared the danger.
It was no surprise Ferguson introduced Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes 20 minutes from time and the old stagers soon combined for a corner routine that saw the former England man’s bullet strike fly wide off Gary Cahill.
If Ronaldo profited from an element of fortune last season, nothing is falling for him this year.
A third free-kick was too powerful for Jaaskelainen to hold but yet again, the rebound fell Bolton’s way.
It seemed United would have to settle for a draw.
But, as Ferguson’s teams have proved so often down the years, they can salvage any situation. And Berbatov appears to be a very quick learner.