Month September 2010

Month September 2010

Sanctimonious ex-pros stick boot in on Rooney

Ed September 30, 2010 Tags: Opinion 19 comments

The accusation that Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s £27 million striker, used a prostitute have remained uncontested and the media spotlight shows little sign of dimming. Yet aside from journalists whose job it is to report on the country’s best, Rooney has also been on the end of criticism from those in the game.

That the player’s form has hit rock bottom hardly helps the former Evertonian’s cause of course, opening the door for cheap taunts from rival fans, journalists and pundits alike. While it is of no surprise that the strength of criticism within media circles has been so vociferous – the moral absolutism of the British tabloids holds no bounds – those within the game now also feel compelled to comment.

Indeed, this week ex-professionals Kevin Keegan and Stan Collymore weighed in on the debate, using Rooney as a platform for comments that reek of self-serving hypocrisy. This comes after manager Sir Alex Ferguson finally admitted that the media pressure is affecting Rooney’s performances on the pitch.

Keegan’s outspoken attack was unusual for the man who has walked away from almost every job he has ever held, but also reflective of many voices within the game. The former Newcastle United manager argues that Rooney has no right to privacy if he is prepared to sell intrusion into his life in other spheres.

“You can’t have all the contracts and sell your wedding to magazines and things like this and suddenly say, ‘That’s the tap I want to turn on, but we want to turn the other one off,'” Keegan told ESPN after United’s draw with Bolton Wanderers last weekend.

“But it’s just one tap and I know from when I played that, if you are advertising boots and all these things, you have to go and make appearances. The one thing I would say is keep your home and your family out of it and just take your endorsements if that’s what you want to do.”

To many supporters it’s an argument that rings true, although one wonders where the pundits’ moral certainty comes from. The sale of Rooney’s wedding to OK magazine, for example, increased the media interest in the player’s life. Indeed, had Rooney eschewed many aspects of the celebrity lifestyle to which he is now accustomed media interest in his life may well be less intense.

This, however, is not the same as permitting carte-blanche media intrusion. Few, if any, in the media have articulated a solid argument that player’s commercial interests also remove the media’s moral obligation to respect privacy. Collymore and Keegan, however, seem to believe this is the case.

It is, of course, an extension of the debate that flared up when Rooney’s indiscretions first emerged: should fans, and in turn the media, care how Rooney behaves? It’s a very risky game of moral absolutism that supporters and the media do not play with friends, family and colleagues outside the game.

Meanwhile others echo Keegan’s belief that Rooney’s “confidence is shot,” with Collymore also arguing that the media intrusion is the player’s own fault.

Collymore, who beat up his then girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson in a Paris bar during the 2002 World Cup, says that supporters have already seen the best of Rooney as a result. The former Liverpool player argues that the player’s dip in form is now permanent because of the media pressure he is now under; perhaps mirroring Collymore’s own ignominious descent into mediocrity.

“We might have seen the best of Wayne Rooney – mentally now he’s going through lots of torment. We know that he’s brought it upon himself,” Collymore told talkSPORT radio, on which he recently called Ryan Giggs a cheat.

“The issue is if you sell your wedding you are saying to people ‘I am happy for my daughter, my son, my mum to be there in the paper’. So you can’t then say, when things are going wrong, particularly if you put yourself in schtuck, ‘stop at the front door’.

“Whatever goes on with him and his wife it will be sorted out in the wash in however many months or years but the mental impact (means) every time you go out you’re not just justifying your footballing ability but you’re justifying lots of other things.”

It’s the old argument that footballers, because they are famous, must behave in a way we do not expect of others in society. Of course, the other way to view that statement is simple justification for old-fashioned media voyeurism and salacious gossip.

Either way, the tap of criticism pundits such as Keegan and Collymore have opened, now flows freely.

Reds snatch late late Spanish win

Ed September 29, 2010 Tags: , Matches 31 comments

Manchester United’s smash-and-grab raid on Spain’s third city brought three precious points to take Sir Alex Ferguson’s side top of Group C. For much of a dull encounter United sought to contain, only for substitute Javier Hernández to finish superbly with just five minutes on the clock and take just the second win in Spain in the club’s history.

It will prove a hugely satisfactory result for Ferguson, who had missed his side’s victory over Scunthorpe United last week to assess tonight’s opponents at first hand.

“I think the second half we certainly improved and had more penetration,” said Ferguson

“We had to make sure we were solid at the back and I don’t think they made many chances in the match.

“Macheda made a great run just before the goal and we needed that towards the end. It’s a great result for us, its not easy coming here. Our record over a long time (in Spain, isn’t good) but we’re pleased with that.”

Indeed, United started brightly, contesting possession evenly and packing midfield to eradicate the loose defending that has dogged the side’s away form this season. With Anderson playing closer to lone-striker Dimitar Berbatov than at almost any time in his three seasons with the club, and Michael Carrick shielding a defence that included the returning Rio Ferdinand.

The Brazilian who is so often lauded as United’s creative answer by supporters has rarely been used in a pure attacking role since his more to Europe in 2005. The return to an old role was only sporadically successful tonight, with the former Porto midfielder too often casual in possession.

If United’s start was positive, with  an extra body in midfield providing reassurance, then Unai Emry’s Valencia side also had its early moments. First, Pablo Hernández shot from 25 yards on the quarter-hour after Carrick had invited player to strike by failing to close down sufficiently. Then, moments later and Edwin van der Sar flapped at a cross from the left. Roberto Soldado, starting alone up front for the hosts, astonishingly missed a header with the goal at his mercy.

United’s first chance came from Berbatov’s brilliance; the Bulgarian flicking over Jérémy Mathieu and enabling Nani to cross only for Anderson to flick a left footed shot wide under pressure.

Yet neither side was able to string enough passes together to build any sense of momentum with the match settling into a midfield stalemate. Indeed, both sides were guilty of being wasteful in possession during the first half hour.

Pablo, with occasional support from Portuguese fullback Miguel Monteiro, offered Valencia the most promising outlet and the right-sided player had the better of Patrice Evra just before the break but failed to find a colleague when the home side looked certain to score.

Then Valencia’s star Juan Mata – quiet for most of the half – let loose with a stunning shot from 25 yards. Van der Sar palmed away, although the whistle had already gone. United: considered warned.

If Ferguson’s half-time call for United to use more possession wisely was on the mark, then his team finally began to heed the demand. Anderson, Park and Carrick – all wasteful in the first 45 – at last began to use the ball with more intelligence and break beyond United’s midfield.

Yet it was Berbatov who created United’s first chance of the second period, spinning David Navarro and shooting on target, only for César Sanchez to save at the near post. Berbatov needed to, with his closest colleague about 40 yards away.

The bright opening was fleeting though as the teams settled into an unambitious pattern save for the occasional United break forward. If United’s decision to keep things tight made sense against the La Liga leaders, then Valencia’s own lack of ambition exposed Los Che’s false position. This team, without Davids Silva and Villa, is a shadow of its former self.

Until late in the game that is, when ambition finally kicked in.

The chances came at last for the home side, with Manuel Fernandes testing van der Sar with 15 to go, Soldado inches wide from another cross and Mathieu fizzing a ball across United’s area. The Reds lack of minutes in the centre of the park finally began to tell as the home side sought a win its play would only just deserve.

Substitute Hernández almost scored with his initial involvement, first put through by Nani and firing straight at Valencia’s ‘keeper, and then at full stretch hitting the outside of the post.

Then the dénouement, with Hernández superbly finishing United’s lightening quick break. Nani’s run and then substitute Federico Macheda’s smart ball enabled the Mexican to steal away from Navarro with his first touch and hit the net with the second.

“He is a fantastic finisher. He took his goal as if he was shelling a pea, it was so natural to him,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“His pace and his penetration caused them a bit of bother.”

Brilliant stuff.

Match facts
United – 4231 – van der Sar; Rafael (O’Shea 90), Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher; Nani, Anderson (Hernández 77), Park; Berbatov (Macheda 85).

Attendance: 52,689
Man-of-the-match: Vidic

Possession: Valencia 51% – 49% Man Utd
Attempts: 9 – 8
On target: 6 – 4
Corners: 6 – 3
Fouls: 14 – 8

Rooney misses three weeks

Ed September 28, 2010 Tags: , , , Shorts 9 comments

Wayne Rooney will miss three weeks and four games with the ankle injury that has kept the striker out of tomorrow”s Champions League game with Valencia. Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed that Rooney’s injury is worse than initially thought, with the striker out of games against Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion.

The striker will also sit out England’s Euro2014 qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley on 12 October, although Ferguson says that the injury is less serious than the one he suffered in March.

“Wayne has done quite well with his recovery from injury in the past,” said Ferguson.

“It is a straightforward ankle injury. And it is not the same one he did in Munich.”

Meanwhile, midfielder Paul Scholes, who also misses the Valencia fixture with a calf injury, will be on the sidelines for around 10 days, almost certainly sitting out United’s weekend trip to Sunderland.

Ferguson is also without Ryan Giggs for the next fortnight in what may prove a pivotal test of United’s midfield strength-in-depth for the testing double-header with Valencia and then the trip to the Stadium of Light.

The Scot also confirmed that he will make a late decision on the fitness of Rio Ferdinand, who travelled with the party to Spain but has featured in just one match this season.

Wayne stays mainly away from Spain

Ed September 28, 2010 Tags: , Matches 136 comments

Manchester United will face Valencia in the Champions League on Wednesday without Wayne Rooney, who has succumbed to an ankle injury and did not travel. The problem, which precipitated the striker’s substitution against Bolton Wanderers, will force a change in tactics from Sir Alex Ferguson, who dare not lose to the La Liga leaders.

Rooney’s injury was initially diagnosed as nothing serious by manager Ferguson leading the speculation that the striker has been dropped on the basis of his continuing poor form. Whatever the truth, Ferguson’s thinking for the match has been clarified by his star player’s absence. Always likely to deploy a lone-forward at Mestalla, the Scot no longer has to consider the previously unthinkable – dropping Rooney on form, or using the former Evertonian on the left wing.

Such is Dimitar Berbatov’s form – and turnaround in fortunes – that he will certainly start just his second Champions League fixture in the past ten.

The Scot has put extra store in United’s result against Valencia after the dour stalemate against Rangers at Old Trafford earlier this month. Lose to Valencia tomorrow night and United’s dropped points against the Scottish champions could still prove costly in a group the Reds are supposed to win comfortably.

If Ferguson’s last-minute dash to watch Spain’s ‘other giant’ caught supporters and the media by surprise last Wednesday, there is little doubt how important the Scot now rates the result. United has not failed to qualify from the group stages since the disastrous 2005/6 campaign in which Ferguson’s side lost to both Benfica and Lille.

But if United is to take a point from the trip south then Ferguson’s men will have to do without both Rooney and Ryan Giggs, who is likely to sit out the next fortnight with a hamstring strain. Paul Scholes played the full 90 against Bolton on Sunday and did not travel with Ferguson’s 22-man party. The 35-year-old midfielder rarely completes two matches back-to-back.

With Owen Hargreaves still on the sidelines, Michael Carrick returning to training this week and Anderson short of minutes after a lengthy rehabilitation, Ferguson is short of options in midfield.

Chalkboard v ValenciaAlongside Darren Fletcher, two of Anderson, Darron Gibson or Carrick will come into a three-man central midfield. Park Ji-Sung is most likely to take Giggs’ role on the left flank, although Bébé travelled with the squad. Berbatov will start as United’s lone-striker.

United supporters will have much to ponder about United’s creativity in Scholes’ absence, with Park likely to reprise his role as the Reds’ ‘defensive attacking midfielder’ and Nani the essential outlet.

Ferguson also has concerns about Rio Ferdinand, who sat out the draw with Bolton as a precaution, but has completed just 90 minutes of first team football this season. The 32-year-old England captain is likely to partner Nemanja Vidic at the heart of a United defence that has conceded seven times on the road this season.

“It is a big concern conceding so many away goals,” captain Vidic said.

“We have lost too many goals in away games and we have to stop that. We haven’t given that many goals away in the past. We have always looked strong and haven’t given teams so many chances.

“We have to be much better in Spain. Valencia are in decent form and won their first [Champions League] match 4-0 and are now top of La Liga. That shows how well they are playing at the moment.”

“At Bolton, there was one goal conceded from a set-piece and one came after a corner, which is not good. We are giving teams too many opportunities and they are taking them. We have to work on the small details and keep coming again.

“It is hard to explain what is going wrong. It is not the true Manchester United. It does have to be sorted out very quickly.”

Starting at Mestalla on Wednesday night, although with Jonny Evans and John O’Shea seemingly make the worst fist of a good opportunity this season, nothing is guaranteed on that front.

Meanwhile, Valencia will seek to extend United’s barren run in Europe against Spanish opposition. Ferguson’s side has won only once in Spain and failed to score on the last three visits. Indeed, United has faced some tough fixtures against the port side.

The clubs first met in the 1982/83 UEFA Cup, with Valencia winning 2-1 at Mestalla following a goalless draw in Manchester two weeks earlier. The sides met in the Champions League in 1999/2000, United winning 3-0 at home and drawing 0-0 away, with Valencia and not United making the final. The following season Valencia again went all the way with the sides playing out two draws in the group stage.

With the club due to move into a new 75,000-seater Nou Mestalla in the north-west of the city in 2011, this may be the last chance for United supporters to expeirience the intimidating Mestalla atmosphere, with stands close to the pitch and steeply banked seats rising high above the pitch.

Despite the club’s stature, Los Che are Spain’s surprise league leaders this season, with Unai Emery’s side seemingly not regressing after the sale of David Silva and David Villa to Manchester City and Barcelona for a combined £50 million fee. Emery’s side play an attacking brand of football with wingers Juan Manuel Mata and Joaquín Sánchez providing pace and width.

It’s a threat that Ferguson has clearly in mind.

Opposition
Valencia – 433 – César Sánchez; Bruno, Navarro, R Costa, Alba; Rodríguez, Topal, Fernandes; Joaquín, Soldado, Mata. Subs from: Albelda, Domínguez, Aduriz, Feghouli, Guaita, Dealbert, Stankevičius, Hernández, Banega, Mathieu, Monteiro, T Costa, Moyà.

United squad
Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Amos, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, O’Shea, Evans, Rafael, Brown, Anderson, Bebe, Nani, Carrick, Gibson, Fletcher, Park, Hernández, Berbatov, Macheda, Owen.

Officials
Referee: Viktor Kassai
Assistant referees: Gabor Eros & Tibor Vamos
Fourth official: Ferenc Bede
Additional assistant referees: Mihaly Fabian & Tamas Bognar

Form
Valencia – WWWWDW
United – WDDWWD

Away form creates tactical dilemma

Toby Coughlin September 27, 2010 Tags: Opinion 23 comments

Coming off the back of Manchester United’s draw with Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson must wonder about the cause of his side’s indifferent form. Few could argue that Bolton, Fulham or Everton are easy away games, but they are the sort of matches that a side with serious title ambitions probably has to win.

Even more worrying is the nature of United’s three Premier League draws this season. It is one thing to come away with a point in a tight 0-0 away from Old Trafford, but to concede seven goals in three away games is unacceptable, especially against teams not noted for their attacking prowess.

Reasons for these defensive lapses can be found in the form of Jonny Evans who, despite looking solid for most of the previous season, now appears daunted by his key role in the team. The Irishman’s performances of late have been undoubtedly below par with a string of errors offering chances up on a plate for the opposition. Most recently Evans allowed Zat Knight to score from a corner.

With Rio Ferdinand returning, however, many will hope that United’s defence will be stronger and can once again thrive through the key personalities of the England captain, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. Ferguson will hope that all three will start together for the first time this season when the team travels to Valencia for another key away tie this week.

Of greater concern, however, is the fact that defensive personnel are not purely to blame. For the first time in many seasons, Alex Ferguson has chosen to play an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, even away from home. It could well be this tactical change which has resulted in so many goals being conceded.

Without three midfield players in the centre of the park, United’s opposition have been afforded more time and space with which to move forward. This season in particular, the problems of playing only two central midfielders have been prevalent, with Paul Scholes providing little to no defensive cover and Darren Fletcher attacking more than an out-and-out anchor man might.

In fact United is one of the few elite clubs to play without a traditional holding player. Taking a quick glance at Europe’s top clubs, it’s clear most invariably operate with three central midfielders, one at least of which is defensive minded:

  • Real Madrid – Khedira, Alonso, Kaka/Özil
  • Barcelona – Busquets/Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta
  • Chelsea – Essien, Mikel/Ramires, Lampard
  • Inter Milan – Cambiasso, Muntari, Sneijder
  • Bayern Munich – Van Bommel, Schweinsteiger, Müller/Kroos

It is no coincidence that Europe’s elite has turned to the system, with games won and lost in midfield. The dominant formation at the World Cup included two defensive midfielders. It is also no coincidence that United’s best seasons of late have come when predominantly playing three in the middle of the park.

Even in United’s 2008 European Cup winning season as Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez often played together upfront, the pair’s tireless nature made up for the missing midfielder, with one tracking back on almost every occasion.

While a return to 4-3-3 – or 4-5-1 depending on your outlook – might be the answer for the current Old Trafford outfit it is no longer easy for Ferguson to play the formation given the personnel available. As noted earlier, Dimitar Berbatov cannot play alone up-front and in his current form it would be folly to drop him to the bench.

The other option, it seems, is to operate in a 4-3-3 formation with Rooney returning to the left of a front three that includes Berbatov and Nani.

Many fans recoil at the suggestion, dreading the waste of talent that comes with Rooney playing on the left. It doesn’t have to be the case and may liberate the former Everton player.

Rooney has been poor this season, looking lacklustre in possession and almost frightened to take on a shot such is the pressure piled on the 24-year-old. Moving Rooney wide may ease much of the pressure on him to score goals, allowing the striker to create but without the weight of providing another 35-goal season.

Alongside Nani, Rooney could provide enough support for Berbatov to play competently up-front, thus solving the old problem of the Bulgarian failing to spearhead United’s attack.

Besides, it is not uncommon for a talented forward to play wide. David Villa almost exclusively played on the left-side of a front three for Spain at the World Cup, as did Luis Suarez for Uruguay. Lionel Messi and, obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo have also shone in a wide position in club football.

The point being United’s only way of solving the current ‘defensive question’ is to return to three in midfield, pushing Rooney wide. It could even solve the ‘Rooney question’ too.

Fergie is very likely to pack the midfield against Valencia in such an important European away game. Those crying out for a change from a 4-4-2 formation that is reaping few defensive rewards, will agree.

Poll: what formation should Fergie play against Valencia?

Ed September 27, 2010 Tags: , , Polls 21 comments

Manchester United faces, arguably, the toughest fixture this season, away at La Liga leaders Valencia on Wednesday night. Following the draw against Rangers, United is under pressure to secure at least a point at the Mestalla. It may provoke Sir Alex Ferguson to change the 4-4-2 system he has mostly deployed this season.

Wayne Rooney,  seemingly perpetually out-of-form and with a continuing ankle problem, will be fit to play against Valencia on Wednesday, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, although it seems the Scot may yet choose to deploy his star striker on the left of the Reds’ attack.

With United suffering defensive problems this season, caused in part at least by the lack of a traditional holding midfielder, Ferguson may revert to a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation on Wednesday, with Rooney the most likely sacrifice given Dimitar Berbatov’s outstanding form.

In midfield Ferguson could bring in one of Darron Gibson, Park Ji-Sung or Anderson as an attacking option, or bolster the defensive side with a fit-again Michael Carrick in something closer to a 4-3-2-1 system.

What would you do on Wednesday?

What formation should Fergie play against Valencia?

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A promising start

Dan Bowman September 26, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 26 comments

Despite a mixed bag of results to date, including a disappointing draw at Bolton Wanderers today, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side remains one of two unbeaten teams in the Premier League. Even including late failures at Fulham and Everton, and turgid stalemate with Rangers, it has still been a decent start from the Scot’s side this season.

Although last week’s rout over Scunthorpe United is not the greatest litmus test of the side’s ambitions this season, it demonstrated if proof were needed, that this season’s team has a wealth of goalscoring options. That may not have always been the case at United and will serve the club well this season.

Ferguson’s squad includes five front-line strikers – Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Javier Hernández, Federico Macheda – all of whom are pushing for regular starting berth. Not even the Real Madrid can boast that kind of strength in depth up-front.

That said, the most obvious deficiency within the current side is a lack goal scoring midfielder. Paul Scholes’ deeper role and Tom Cleverley’s season-long loan to Wigan Athletic have left United short. The injuries to Antonio Valenica and Ryan Giggs have only compounded the problem.

On a more promising note the return of Anderson adds to Ferguson’s options. The flickering embers of the Brazilian’s talent may just grown bright once more. Certainly Ferguson will hope that he will finally become the player United hoped he would when shelling out £17 million three years ago.

On his return against Scunthorpe, Anderson took on the midfield anchor role, with his passing generally consistent. Although the 20-year-old did not play against Bolton today, Ferguson will surely bring the former Porto player back into the fold sooner rather than later.

Ferguson’s new signings have not had a dramatic impact on the side to date but each remains promising.

Recent evidence suggests that Chris Smalling is, in fact, not so appauling. The acquisition from Fulham looks a smart buy following a strong and composed display against Scunthorpe on Wednesday. In the 20-year-old’s two games against Rangers and the Lincolnshire side to date he has shown more than a passing reminiscence of Rio Ferdinand. Keeping the England captain at close quarters can only be a good ploy for the youngster.

Meanwhile, ‘Chicharito’ is yet to fully settle. At times the striker has appeared to struggle with the physicality of the English game despite his promising display in the Community Shield. It’s hardly a surprise but the 21-year-old Mexico international may already have fallen down the pecking order.

An indifferent display against Fulham was followed up by a woeful performance against Rangers, when Ferguson pushed the striker into an unfamiliar wide position. Indeed, against Scunthorpe Chicharito failed to truly assert himself on the home side’s backline, and often looked lost when defending in wide areas.

More intriguing of the three, the now infamous Bébé has a ‘touch of the Ronaldos’ about him on the evidence of his cameo against Scunthorpe. The Portuguese may yet prove the resurrection of Carlos Queiroz’ reputation. Bébé’s direct approach, coupled with his immense physical stature and blistering pace will no doubt trouble even the very best of defences in time.

One of the more promising aspects of the new season is United’s attacking style. Ferguson has once again got his side back to playing the mouth-watering football we also associate with many great United teams. The return of 4-4-2 may have helped, although the rejuvenation of Dimitar Berbatov and excellence of (Sir) Paul Scholes is central to United’s attacking play.

Ferguson’s appointment of Nemanja Vidic as captain could also prove a masterstroke this season, as the Scot attempts to create a more settled side that in the recent past. With Vidic often linked with a move abroad, the captaincy could help the Serbian focus on the job at hand as one of the club’s most senior players.

Yet today’s result with Bolton also highlighted the major fault with the team – defensive lapses that have cost seven goals in three away Premier League games, including two very late draws. United can ill afford for it to continue this trend and perhaps only the return – and consistent fitness – of Ferdinand can eradicate the problem.

Despite the draws on the road United remains second in the table, is through to the fourth round of the Carling cup and is still favourites to top Champions league Group C.

Sterner tests lie ahead than of course. Certainly tougher than the remarkably weak Liverpool side that United crushed last weekend. The next big test sees United travel to the Mestalla on Wednesday to face Valencia, La Liga’s surprise package.

United slip to third away draw

Ed September 26, 2010 Tags: , Matches 23 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson returned to the Manchester United bench but could not prevent his side drawing a third straight Premier League game on the road. United’s defensive frailties came to the fore once again, with bright attacking play cancelled out by some loose play at the back. It hardly surprised, with the Reds unable to plug the leaks away from home.

Nani’s wonderful strike and Michael Owen’s late headed equaliser earned United a point but on a weekend when both Arsenal and Chelsea lost, Ferguson may see the draw as a further two points dropped. After all United has won this fixture four out of the last five seasons.

If United’s attacking play merited more than a draw, then Ferguson must surely be deeply concerned about the fractious nature of his side’s rearguard. United simply cannot win the Premier League title in May by defending in such a haphazard fashion.

Indeed, Ferguson could hardly contain his disappointment, briskly shaking Owen Coyle’s hand at the end. The hair-dryer no doubt out in full force.

“I thought the first half we should have done better. We had some tremendous chances and we played a lot of good football,” said Ferguson.

“We did well to come from behind. Our chances were reduced in the second half although we had plenty of the ball. We showed some character coming from behind twice. A lot of teams will find it difficult coming here – they are a handful.

“The Premier League is like that, teams drop points when you don’t expect them to. Away from home we’ve only got three points and it shows a measure of the quality in the league.”

Ferguson, returning to the United bench after the midweek trip to Spain, left Rio Ferdinand out of his starting line-up, with Valencia coming up on Wednesday. The 32-year-old defender is just 180 minutes into his campaign with no pre-season behind him.

If Ferdinand’s absence caused concern for a defence that has shipped more goals in September than any other top flight side, then Jonny Evans’ poor recent form compounds the problem. It was always likely to be a tough day for Evans whose talent is not in doubt but ability to deal with physical very much is.

United started brightly though, monopolising possession and Wayne Rooney offering at least a glimpse of a return to a form of old. Not that Coyle’s side allowed United an easy ride of it, contesting possession every bit as competitively as under Sam Allardyce.

United had been warned. Lee Chung-Yong struck just wide before the Bolton’s opening goal as United’s tendency to invite the home side forward allowed Bolton back into the game. Zat Knight, stealing in ahead of a static Evans’, headed home the resulting corner, with Patrice Evra straying from his post. After Smalling’s outstanding performance in midweek, Ferguson will surely take note if Ferdinand’s absences are repeated this season.

Of the many weaknesses in the United squad creativity from wide areas is not Ferguson’s concern, with Nani at the heart of many of the Reds’ best moments. While the Portuguese twice wasted possession in the opening half there was no sloppiness about United’s equaliser, with Nani running from inside his own half to lash past Jussi Jaaskelainen in the Bolton net. A simply stunning strike and just reward to United’s overall dominance.

Indeed, the visitors began the second period in much the same fashion, hogging the lion’s share of possession and chances, with Berbatov forcing Jaaskelainen into a smart save on the hour as United sought the breakthough.

Perhaps unsurprising, given the upcoming fixture list, Rooney was withdrawn on the hour with liberal amounts of ice applied to the striker’s left ankle as the Scouser sat impassively on the bench. With Ryan Giggs also withdrawn early due to a hamstring strain that will keep the Welshman out for a fortnight, Ferguson’s options for the Spanish trip may be reduced.

Nani continued to be United’s main creative force but for all United’s possession Ferguson’s side rarely tested Jaaskelainen. United paid for the profligacy too, with the other Bulgarian, Martin Petrov, finding the back of United’s net after Johan Elmander’s smart layoff. Against the run-of-play perhaps but symptomatic of United’s play away from Old Trafford.

Ferguson threw caution to the wind, pushing Nani forward, with Michael Owen and Federico Macheda joining the fray to create an old-fashioned 4-2-4 formation. If Ferguson is ever-prepared to gamble then the move opened up United’s already fragile defence. Elmander should have hit Bolton’s third with 15 to go, firing over Edwin van der Sar’s goal with only the ‘keeper to beat.

The Swede lived to regret his wastefulness when Owen superbly flicked home Nani’s free kick to equalise moments later. It was the former Liverpool striker’s first touch and one of very few meaningful goals the former England international has scored in his time with United.

With time ticking down Scholes’ wonderful pass opened up Bolton’s right flank, with Nani cutting inside Robinson and firing just wide on his left foot. A wonderful move that could have brought United better reward. Moments later and the flame-haired midfielder fired just high as Ferguson’s side sought the winner its dominance deserved.

It didn’t come.

“It’s always a tough place to come but we created enough chances and dominated most of the game,” said goalscorer Owen.

“We’re obviously frustrated. We wanted to get the three points with the results that have come this weekend and we had the chance to close to gap at the top.

“We were helped with a few nice results yesterday but when you don’t capitalise on it, it leaves you with disappointment.”

In such details are titles won and lost.

Match facts
United – 442 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher (Owen 71), Giggs (Park Ji-Sung 53); Rooney (Macheda 61), Berbatov.

Attendance: 23,926
Man-of-the-match: Nani

Possession: Bolton 41% – 59% Man Utd
Attempts: 15 – 12
On target: 9 – 6
Corners: 7 – 12
Fouls: 16 – 18