THE THIN RED LINE! MANCHESTER UTD 1 WIGAN 0 PREMIER LEAGUE, OLD TRAFFORD BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE United's Makeshift Defence Holds Firm as the Champions Close in on Rafa

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Byline: BY DAVID McDONNELL

SQUEAKY bum time, the phrase Sir Alex Ferguson famously coined to describe the pressure of the title run-in, arrived for leaders Liverpool last night as their arch rivals closed to within two points.

Manchester United's fans found their own way of taunting their Anfield rivals, chanting 'Rafa's cracking up' to the tune of the Euro 96 anthem Football's Coming Home, in reference to the Liverpool boss Benitez's recent attack on Fergie.

And although this was nowhere near vintage United, with Wigan producing the best performance by a visiting team at Old Trafford this season, Fergie's men are right where they want to be - breathing down Liverpool's neck.

United travel to Bolton on Saturday when a win will see them leapfrog Liverpool and stride to familiar territory at the summit of the Premier League for the first time this season. Once there, they will be hard to dislodge.

Their two box-office stars may have combined for the only goal which secured victory, but it was Fergie's makeshift defence who were the real heroes of the night.

Newly-crowned World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo set up Wayne Rooney to put Fergie's men ahead inside the first minute, but United's rearguard deserved all the credit.

Without injured Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, Fergie was forced to reshuffle and field an unfamiliar back four, of which only Nemanja Vidic could be considered a first-choice.

But in the face of a stern test from Steve Bruce's resurgent side, United's defence - Vidic, Jonny Evans, John O'Shea and Brazilian teenager Rafael - stood firm to clinch a vital win.

United extended their unbeaten run in the Premier League to nine games and set a new club record of the same number of clean sheets.

It all points to United assuming control of the title race once again.

And it took them just 53 seconds to score the decisive goal. Ronaldo scampered on to a sublime pass from Dimitar Berbatov before crossing for Rooney to steer the ball in from close-range.

But that euphoria was marred six minutes later when Rooney pulled up with a hamstring injury and knew immediately he would play no further part, Fergie confirming he will be out for three weeks.

His replacement Carlos Tevez should have put United further ahead in the 20th minute. Wigan's hopeless offside trap allowed Tevez through on goal with only Chris Kirkland to beat.

He did the hardest part, taking the ball around the Wigan keeper, but his touch was too heavy and the chance was wasted.

The same player was bearing down on goal when he was brought down by a cynical challenge from Paul Scharner in the 54th minute, for which the Wigan defender was booked. …