Tuesday 20 February 2018

Berbatov swoops to edge United closer to record

Manchester united 1 Bolton 0

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 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 judgment, 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 being 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 go 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 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 making a surprising number of wrong options, becoming annoyed with himself in the process, and whether paired with Javier Hernandez 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 chances 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 Hernandez 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 mis-control a promising pass from Valencia. His next was to send a side-foot 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.

When United went down to 10 men shortly after that, 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 with 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 shot the goalkeeper could not hold and Berbatov snaffled 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."


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