Dimitar Berbatov made light of Wayne Rooney's absence by scoring twice as Manchester United restored their one point lead at the top of the Premier League with a 4-0 win at Bolton on Saturday.
It took the reigning champions 38 minutes to go in front and then they needed an own-goal from Jlloyd Samuel. United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar made some important saves before and after the opener and the visitors didn't put the result beyond doubt until Berbatov struck twice in the second half, with Darron Gibson adding a fourth late-on.
Victory was all the more important for United after they'd kicked off two points behind following Chelsea's 7-1 thrashing of Aston Villa earlier Saturday and set Sir Alex Ferguson's side up nicely for next weekend's clash with their title rivals. Ferguson singled out Dutch veteran van der Sar for special praise after the goalkeeper saved well from Johan Elmander and Fabrice Muamba when the game was still in the balance. "They were absolutely magnificent saves," said Ferguson. "The second one, in particular, I think was a match-winning save."
Chelsea may have kept pace with United but third-placed Arsenal fell behind after the Gunners dropped points away to Birmingham, who scored late on in a 1-1 draw. "It was a bad one for Arsenal to drop points so late in the game today," said Ferguson. "They're now four points behind us. "We'll all drop points but the name of the game is to make sure you don't drop as many as the rest."
Bolton, despite this defeat, remain five points above the relegation zone but frustrated manager Owen Coyle. "If you switch off and gift them goals as we did you're going to be punished," he said. "But for 70 minutes of the game I thought we were terrific. The scoreline flatters Manchester United - no doubt about it. We were the architects of our own downfall."
United were without both defender Rio Ferdinand and Rooney but still warmed up for Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final first leg with Bayern Munich in some style.
Their first real effort on goal came when Berbatov was picked out by Darren Fletcher's cross and hit a volley that was bundled wide by goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen. Jonny Evans, making his first appearance since last month's League Cup final win against Villa, lifted over the bar after Bolton failed to clear the Nani corner that followed.
Bolton were causing the champions plenty of problems and Nemanja Vidic had to be at full stretch to block from Tamir Cohen. The impressive Jack Wilshere, on loan from Arsenal, opened up United's defence with a pass to Johan Elmander but the Swede's drive was pushed around the post by van der Sar.
Ryan Giggs was picked out by Berbatov and cut inside Zat Knight before driving over from just outside the area. Gary Cahill glanced a header wide from a free kick from South Korean winger Lee Chung-yong but eight minutes before the break United took the lead. Samuel was not under too much pressure to clear Giggs's hopeful cross but still managed to turn the ball into the corner of his own net from six yards out.
Van der Sar tipped a shot from Fabrice Muamba over the bar and the former Arsenal midfielder also had a long-range effort deflected wide. United's goalkeeper attempted to delay the taking of the corner but Knight grabbed the ball, leaving van der Sar on the floor, and the corner was taken before the goalkeeper was in position only for Gary Neville to head away.
The visitors had already been angered by Sam Ricketts's early challenge on Patrice Evra and they were frustrated by the same player's tangle with Nani just before the break. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson came on to the pitch to remonstrate with referee Martin Atkinson as soon as the half-time whistle was blown.
Berbatov should have doubled the lead shortly after the restart when he was sent through by Darren Fletcher but the Bulgaria international stumbled as he was about to shoot. And Fletcher stabbed wide of goal after he was picked out in the area by Berbatov.
Elmander then cut in from the left flank and had a low drive saved by van der Sar as Bolton desperately searched for an equaliser. But with 21 minutes left, United added a second through Berbatov. Giggs slipped a pass through for Fletcher. The Scotland midfielder's shot was blocked by Jaaskelainen but not held by the goalkeeper and Berbatov reacted quickest to touch in.
Berbatov wrapped the points up when he was found by Nani's cross, after the Portuguese slipped past Ricketts with ease. Gibson added a fourth with his first touch after coming on as a substitute, after more fine work from Nani, to seal a convincing victory.