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Thursday, March 20, 2008


Updated: March 19, 2008, 6:17 PM ET

Cristiano Ronaldo played the captain's role to the full, scoring both goals to hand Manchester United a 2-0 win against Bolton and the advantage in the Barclays Premier League title race.

Ronaldo, given the skipper's armband for the first time by Sir Alex Ferguson, responded with a virtuoso display.

The 23-year-old opened the scoring with a mis-struck shot then ended the contest with another of those stunning long-range free-kicks.

Victory took United three points clear of Arsenal and was just the cushion needed ahead of the weekend's clashes of the big four.

Bolton may never have expected a result but apart from a 10-minute spell in the second half they barely put up a fight.

Even without Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the starting line-up, United simply swept away Wanderers, the poor crumbs on a rich man's table.

Ferguson's confidence was plain from the start as he made seven changes while Bolton boss Gary Megson made four alterations from the disastrous defeat by Wigan on Sunday.

With Ferdinand still struggling with a back problem it meant a chance for 20-year-old Catalan defender Gerard Pique to test his mettle against Kevin Davies and El-Hadji Diouf, but they did not provide even a physical challenge.

Megson's tactic of packing defence and midfield was hardly unexpected but it took less than nine minutes for United to nullify them.

Carlos Tevez threatened to score only for Ricardo Gardner to whip the ball off his toe, but from the resulting corner Ronaldo struck.

It was not the most beautiful of Ronaldo's many goals but it was crucial.

First the winger rose to head back Nani's corner, Tevez missed an overhead kick but Bolton only half-cleared and Ronaldo was swiftly there to strike a shot into the ground and home from 12 yards out.

Nani blazed over after a jinking run, but in the 18th minute Bolton put together a thrilling move that nearly earned them an equaliser.

The inspiration was Danny Guthrie, the midfielder on loan from Liverpool and Bolton's best player of the night, surging out of midfield and then down the right where he sent over a searching cross.

Davies' movement had seen him shake off Pique and he slid in at the far post only to see Tomasz Kuszczak made an excellent stop.

The costliness of that miss was hammered home as `Captain Fantastic' made it 33 goals for the season, and 24 in the league, after being fouled by Abdoulaye Meite.

It was another of those tremendous Ronaldo free-kicks that appear to defy the laws of physics - rising, dipping and swerving from 30 yards out over a six-man wall to leave Ali Al Habsi clutching thin air.

It also meant he overtook George Best's 32-goal tally - the previous best for a United winger.

Gretar Steinsson tried to get Bolton back into it but failed with a wild drive, before Tevez curled a left-footed shot into Al Habsi's arms after a scintillating dribble.

United nearly made it three in first-half injury-time as first Darren Fletcher's low drive was blocked and then John O'Shea blasted wide.

Immediately after the break Steinsson, moved to centre-back, played Bolton into further trouble by chopping down Tevez on the edge of the box.

Old Trafford awaited Ronaldo, but he was the decoy and instead Nani took the free-kick and only a sprawling dive by Al Habsi kept the ball out.

But then followed Bolton's spell of pressure and United had cause to thank their keeper.

First Davies' threatened but shot low and straight at Kuszczak, then Diouf did have the ball in the net with a quickly-taken free-kick but referee Alan Wiley ruled it out on the grounds he had not whistled for him to strike it.

Bolton did not complain too much, but when Diouf put the re-taken kick in the same spot Kuszczak was waiting for it.

The Polish keeper then performed heroics to tip over after Nicky Hunt caught a volley perfectly from 30 yards out and the ball looked destined for the top corner.

Gavin McCann was next to find Kuszczak impregnable as the keeper turned aside his low strike.

United responded to end the revival and the Ronaldo hat-trick looked odds on when he ran at the Bolton defence, performed a couple of step-overs and sent in a fierce shot but Al Habsi was able to parry his effort.

Saha should have sealed matters after a neat side-step but lost his cool and found the stands instead.

As United poured forward for a third, Nani had three decent chances in quick succession, two missed and one saved. The home fans were left cursing they had not fallen to his captain.