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.
United – 442 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher (Owen 71), Giggs (Park Ji-Sung 53); Rooney (Macheda 61), Berbatov.
Possession: Bolton 41% – 59% Man Utd
Attempts: 15 – 12
On target: 9 – 6
Corners: 7 – 12
Fouls: 16 – 18