With Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, John O’Shea and Rafael Da Silva unavailable through injury, Bolton Wanderers attacked Man Utd from kick-off. Owen Coyle included Kevin Davies, Johan Elmander and Daniel Sturridge in his starting line-up and they were not shy about trying to test the home side’s patchy back-line. Martin Petrov tested Edwin van der Sar with a free-kick and Elmander was denied by a block from Patrice Evra before the home side had registered their first effort on goal.
Without the ball, Bolton were just as impressive as when they had a chance to attack. They were well-organised and made sure to maintain their shape as the home side tried to open them up. Wayne Rooney, Nani and Hernandez were restricted to just a handful of chances in the opening half and the majority of those were from outside the area.
Sir Alex Ferguson, in constant communication with the dugout thanks to a conveniently placed telephone, made two changes at the beginning of the second half in an attempt to swing the game into the favour of his team. Wes Brown was replaced by Fabio Da Silva due to a suspected leg injury and at the other end Dimitar Berbatov was introduced at the expense of Hernandez.
The changes brought United no closer to a breakthrough even though they were seeing a lot more of the ball. Bolton sacrificed possession to the United midfield in preference to making sure that they denied space and time in the final third. Cahill and his central defensive partner David Wheater were particularly disciplined and resolute as the home side were again restricted to efforts from distance.
Aware that Arsenal were failing to beat West Bromwich Albion elsewhere, the Old Trafford crowd and players started to grow restless and when Jonny Evans was sent off for a reckless challenge on Stuart Holden, it appeared as though they would miss the chance to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League table. The Northern Irish defender dived into the 50-50 challenge with his studs showing and left Marriner with no other option than to show him red.
With the numbers advantage, Bolton pushed for an unlikely winner. Matthew Taylor, introduced for Holden who was stretchered off following the tackle, stole in unmarked at the back post but could only head straight at Van der Sar.
All of Bolton’s hard-work was undone on the cusp of a well-deserved point moments later when Berbatov won the game. He reacted first when Jussi Jaaskelainen spilled Nani’s shot and slide home the winner in the 87th minute to earn United a valuable three points. The win moves United five points clear of Arsenal and means Bolton slip ever closer to being dragged into the tight relegation battle.