MANCHESTER - Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson hailed his team's ability to grit their teeth after they snatched a 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers on Saturday to open a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
Time and again this season United have turned below-par performances into points to edge closer to a record 19th league title, and Dimitar Berbatov's 88th-minute winner at Old Trafford was another case of gobbling up a win without showing much bite.
"It wasn't a 100 percent top performance by us today, but we never gave in," Ferguson told MUTV after Saturday's game.
"It's the character of this club... no other club in the country's got that. We are fantastic when it comes to gritting our teeth and getting something out of a dead situation. We did it again today and full marks to them."
Not for the first time, either, United's cause was helped by slip-ups from their main rivals.
Second-placed Arsenal salvaged a 2-2 draw at West Bromwich Albion thanks to two goals in the last 20 minutes, but, while they were pleased to have avoided defeat, United were the main beneficiaries.
Before Saturday, United had suffered back-to-back league defeats and three losses in their last five league games, and yet because of shock defeats for Arsenal and Manchester City and a mid-season slump by Chelsea, Ferguson's team have remained top.
United showed the same ability to grind out results in this week's 2-1 victory over Olympique Marseille, which put them in the Champions League quarter-finals despite some shaky defending that a team such as Barcelona would likely have punished.
Ferguson breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday, not only because they had won but also at the upcoming international break, which will give the players on United's lengthy injury list time to recover.
They have looked vulnerable at the back without the commanding presence of centre-backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, while full back Rafael picked up an injury against Marseille and midfielder Anderson has been out for some time.
"The great thing about today is not just a win, it's a two-week break," Ferguson told Sky Sports. "We can get players patched up - that rest factor. OK, a lot of them are on internationals but hopefully they will come back OK."
He said his side improved once they were down to 10 men after defender Jonny Evans's 76th-minute dismissal for a challenge on Stuart Holden that resulted in the Bolton midfielder being sent to hospital with a gash in his leg.
"The sending-off galvanised us a little bit," Ferguson told MUTV. "Players had to play all over the place. Everyone's done a shift, worked their socks off, and I think we've got a deserved win out of it."