United slip past Bolton
Manchester United received more last-gasp salvation at Old Trafford, this time from Edwin van der Sar as they scrambled back to the Barclays Premier League summit. Late goals against Manchester City and Sunderland have kept United afloat at Old Trafford this season. This time the drama was all at the other end.
Two goals up and cruising against Bolton Wanderers thanks to an early Zat Knight own goal and Antonio Valencia's first since a £17m summer move from Wigan Athletic, United looked destined to cruise home. Instead, the whole game changed following a series of superb saves from Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Matt Taylor pulled one back 15 minutes from time. And with almost the final touch, Gary Cahill went agonisingly close to snatching a point with a point-blank header that the returning veteran Van der Sar somehow managed to keep out. Given his much-publicised attack on Alan Wiley a fortnight ago and memories of being sent to the stands by today's official Mark Clattenburg when these two sides met at the Reebok Stadium two seasons ago, Ferguson needed a quiet day.
After his apology seven days ago, Ferguson's mood of contrition with regard to his attack on Wiley's fitness levels continued in his programme notes. He wrote: "I hope he has accepted my apology because I have always respected Alan Wiley, who is a good referee, and my remarks were not intended to be a slur on his integrity."
No such compassion was offered to Bolton, who apart from a brief period just before Valencia broke his United duck, were totally overrun until that late salvo, which was as unexpected as it nearly was so profitable. United could have been ahead before Patrice Evra charged forward on the overlap and drove a cross to Michael Owen at the near-post.
With Wayne Rooney missing due to a groin injury, Owen could have done with getting his own name on the scoresheet. Instead, his off-target header fell to Knight, who made a complete mess of an intended clearance and instead trundled it into his own net. More should have soon followed.
Jonny Evans gave Jussi Jaaskelainen the opportunity to make a fine block when really his far-post header should have been guided in from a Ryan Giggs cross that came at the end of some excellent approach play. Dimitar Berbatov, celebrating the birth of his first child on Thursday, blazed a decent opportunity wide, while Jaaskelainen stood tall in the face of Valencia's long-range effort. It meant Ferguson's side had to wait until the 33rd minute to double their lead, before which Kevin Davies had wasted a golden chance to equalise.
Valencia has made a promising start in his new surroundings, with the exception of his efforts in front of goal. The Ecuador talent has rarely given the impression of being prolific and there have been many better chances than the one he belted past Jaaskelainen. However, after collecting Michael Owen's square ball, he raced forward before prodding a pass to Gary Neville, whose return was delivered with precision, inviting what followed.
It was against Bolton six years ago that Cristiano Ronaldo announced himself to an unsuspecting audience. The odds are against Valencia matching the Portugal superstar's contribution. However, the early signs are that he has been another astute buy.
Had Jaaskelainen not managed to beat away an acrobatic Berbatov volley, the Bulgarian would have had a fitting way to celebrate such a momentous week in his life. There was little argument over who should be man of the match, with Jaaskelainen becoming a one-man barricade. The Finn denied Valencia, whose rasping angled drive was heading for the far corner and the worth of Jaaskelainen's immense contribution was proved 15 minutes from time when Bolton dragged themselves back into the contest.
United failed to heed the warning offered by a disallowed Ivan Klasnic effort, and when Kevin Davies launched a far post cross towards Taylor, the midfielder steered his header into the left corner. The move highlighted Evra's weakness in the air, which Bolton desperately tried to exploit.
Ivan Klasnic, whose introduction had thrown United's defence into a panic, fired narrowly wide, then Knight was off target before Cahill was presented with his glorious chance. Ferguson had already placed his trust in Van der Sar to make his first appearance of the season after breaking his fingers in the summer, and the 38-year-old did not let him down.