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Defensive malaise continues to follow United

His absences have become both notable and normal, both newsworthy and no great shock. Rio Ferdinand manages to sustain a high profile with his off-field activities, but it is tempting to bracket him in the ranks of the part-time footballers these days. Instead of the supposed comeback, he had another watching brief at the Reebok Stadium.

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While the dominant statistic was Michael Owen's 200th career goal for English clubs, other numbers generated by this eventful draw have relevance: Ferdinand has only featured in 13 of Manchester United's last 49 Premier League games. This season, United have conceded seven goals and lost six points on their travels. Three matches have ended 2-2, 3-3 and 2-2 respectively. Were their premier partnership at the back reunited and resilient, it is hard to imagine such scorelines continuing.

Having faced Rangers and Scunthorpe, Ferdinand was nonetheless not deemed ready, whether mentally or physically, for the greater demands of the Premier League. Instead, it is Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans at the heart of a defence who are sieving goals on the road. A couple of years ago, it practically became a catchphrase for Sir Alex Ferguson to say "Jonny Evans is a future Manchester United centre half". Now, courtesy of Ferdinand's various calf, ankle, knee and back problems, the future has arrived. And, at the moment, it is enough to induce feelings of nostalgia.

It is strange to think of United with a soft underbelly but that is a risk. Tim Cahill, so astute in identifying opponents' weaknesses, isolated himself against Evans in the closing stages of the 3-3 draw at Goodison Park, when the Australian scored one goal and made another in injury time. It was Evans, too, who upended Fernando Torres for Liverpool's penalty at Old Trafford last week, when the Ulsterman was deceived by the Spaniard's sharp turn.

This was another occasion when he could be faulted. In the fifth minute, Zat Knight reacted quicker than Evans, meeting Martin Petrov's corner with a casual flick of the heel. Patrice Evra's loose interpretation of his duties on the post meant he shared responsibility for the goal. Yet indecision was apparent again when Evans let Johan Elmander unchecked to almost apply a decisive touch to Kevin Davies' flick-on. Indeed, the marauding Swede troubled Evans throughout.

While Bolton are allying their age-old abrasiveness with more craft in possession, a trip to the Reebok nonetheless presents a test of a defender's mettle. Evans suffers from a lack of presence. Compared to his fearless, forceful partner, Vidic, Evans appears the shy, retiring type. A previous visit to Bolton, in 2007, dissuaded Ferguson from persisting with another elegant young central defender; Gerard Pique struggled against Nicolas Anelka that day but, since returning to his homeland for a bargain £5 million, he has been reincarnated as "Piquenbauer", Champions League and World Cup winner. There are similarities with the Ulsterman's style of play, though the Barcelona defender is undeniably a higher-class variant of Evans.

Pique failed to break up the alliance of Vidic and Ferdinand and now, shorn of the latter, United have mislaid their solidity. They were adeptly outmanoeuvred for Bolton's second goal - "a terrific move," according to Owen Coyle - when Lee Chung-Yong picked out Davies, whose reverse ball found Petrov. The former Manchester City winger turned past Park Ji-Sung before beating Edwin van der Sar.

With the Dutchman defeated a seventh time on his travels, it left Ferguson to lament: "Away from home this season we have scored seven goals and we have only got three points."

In a storming game, they also scored twice. Nani darted from the centre circle to the edge of the penalty area before drilling a shot across Jussi Jaaskelainen and into the far corner. Then the Portuguese, now shouldering more responsibility with Antonio Valencia confined to an extended period on the sidelines, took the free kick that Owen headed in with his first touch.

The milestone was duly reached but, as the scorer said: "It was tinged with a bit of disappointment not to get three points. With the results this weekend, it was an opportunity to close that gap at the top but it was not to be."

His manager added: "We must take credit for coming back again. Being behind twice away from home and coming back from it is not an easy thing to do."

The concern, as Ferguson's expression on the touchline suggested, is that they needed to come from behind. And that is an indication of a defensive malaise.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Johan Elmander - The Swede looks a different player to the expensive misfit who laboured under Gary Megson. He links up really well with Davies and ran at the United defence with boundless confidence. A couple of misses - one of which was an opportunity to make it 3-1- tarnished his efforts, but Coyle attributed it to an unfortunate bobble and deemed his display "magnificent".

BOLTON VERDICT: A new-found positivity is serving them well. Coyle's blueprint of two strikers and two wingers contributes to an open game and contains risks but thus far, he is being vindicated. Petrov, Davies and Stuart Holden were among the many Wanderers players to excel.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson's willingness to attack brought them a point, the replacement of the influential Darren Fletcher with Owen producing the equaliser. Yet it may be a worry that, despite possessing a huge squad, there seem to be comparatively few players the manager trusts at the moment and some of them, Evans and Wayne Rooney included, are not in peak form.

INJURY NEWS: Both Rooney and Ryan Giggs came off. While the striker had ice on his foot, Ferguson expects him to be fit for the Champions League game in Valencia. The prognosis for the Welshman is less positive. "Ryan's is the more serious," his manager said. "It's a hamstring, I'm afraid. He'll be out for a couple of weeks."


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