Manchester: Dimitar Berbatov gave 10-man Manchester United a vital 1-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford on Saturday.
With United boss Sir Alex Ferguson serving the first of his five-match touchine ban, the Premier League leaders looked bereft of inspiration for long periods. Their hopes of taking advantage of Arsenal`s 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion seemed to have suffered a further blow 15 minutes from time when defender Jonny Evans was shown a straight red card for an horrendous, studs-up challenge on Bolton midfielder Stuart Holden.
But Ferguson, watching in the directors` box, was on his feet two minutes from time when Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen fumbled a long-range shot from Nani and substitute Berbatov was able to walk the rebound into an open goal. United are now five points clear of second-place Arsenal, who have a game in hand on the leaders.
United`s troubles might have started earlier, after just three minutes to be precise, when a slip by Michael Carrick allowed Gretar Steinsson to find Johan Elmander who, in turn, made the perfect lay-off for midfielder Fabrice Muamba. Fortunately, for the home side, the Bolton man showed terrible footwork and miscontrolled from just 12 yards out.
It was the start of an entertaining half, even if United were well below their best. Wayne Rooney unleashed a terrific early 20-yard shot that flew wide before Paul Robinson was required to block Javier Hernandez`s shot after a clever pull-back from Wes Brown. Rooney, in a rich vein of goalscoring form, was looking more like his old self and unleashed a volley from an Antonio Valencia cross that Jaaskelainen held well at the second attempt.
Martin Petrov`s deflected cross almost played in Daniel Sturridge just six yards out, then the Bulgarian`s free-kick from near the right-hand corner flag caused panic in the home defence before being headed behind by Rooney. By the interval, Ferguson clearly recognised the need for change and defender Fabio and leading scorer Berbatov came on, for Brown and Hernandez respectively.
It was Nani who looked United`s most likely source of a breakthrough early after the restart, however, as he tormented Steinsson down Bolton`s right flank. But the Portuguese international could not find the breakthrough, failing with his final pass or long-range shot all too often. Instead, it was Bolton who almost drew first blood as the game passed the hour mark and David Wheater almost connected with a Petrov corner before the Bulgarian drilled in a fierce cross-shot that just cleared the bar from another set-piece.
United responded again with Rooney powering into the area from the left and seeing his cross beat Jaaskelainen only to be cleared away from danger by Wheater. The Bolton goalkeeper failed to deal properly with a Nani corner a few moments later, only for Carrick to respond with a feeble strike that flew harmlessly off target. Berbatov finally threatened the goal 18 minutes from time when Rooney played a short pass to him just outside the penalty area but the 20-goal United forward curled his shot well wide.
Rooney might have put the ten men of United into the lead seven minutes from time as he cut in from the left only to be denied by Jaaskelainen`s smart dive low at his near post. In response, within a minute, Petrov floated in a cross for substitute Matt Taylor, who could only direct a free header straight at United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. That miss proved doubly costly with Nani soon bringing a fine save out of Jaaskelainen before the Finnish goalkeeper`s error, from the same player`s shot, allowed Berbatov to snatch the points.