Aston Villa 0-1 Man Utd
David Beckham's early goal was enough to ensure Manchester United kept up the pressure on leaders Arsenal at the top of the Premiership.
The England midfielder turned home Ryan Giggs' cross after only 10 minutes - but that was hardly the opening of the United floodgates.
In fact, Villa could - and probably should - have avoided a fourth successive Premiership defeat after carving out a series of gilt-edged chances to equalise.
Mustapha Hadji saw a hat-trick of efforts fly narrowly off target, while Darius Vassell was denied by Fabien Barthez in a stretched first half full of chances.
United set the tone inside two minutes as Beckham remarkably wasted a glorious early opportunity.
Ruud van Nistelrooy's initial effort was blocked by Alan Wright and when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned the ball back in to the box, Beckham's close-range effort was brilliantly parried by Stefan Postma.
But Beckham made up for the miss eight minutes later when he opened the scoring, stealing in ahead of Wright to poke in Giggs' teasing cross.
Villa responded positively to the early setback, with Lee Hendrie and Hadji involved in most of their brightest moments.
Hendrie displayed an array of tricks but lacked a finishing touch, while Hadji saw one effort fly across the face of goal, a long-range shot fly wide of the opposite post and, to complete the set, a header dip over the crossbar.
VILLA PARK MATCH FACTS
2 mins: Beckham's close-range shot saved by Postma
10 mins: Beckham pokes home Giggs' cross
24 mins: Vassell denied by Barthez
56 mins: Giggs' free-kick smacks against a post
Midway through the first half, Gareth Barry sent Vassell clean through but the England striker saw his low shot well saved by Barthez, with Dion Dublin screaming for a pass to his right.
The free-flowing football continued after the break, with United searching for a killer second goal and Villa frantically feeling for an equaliser.
Thirty seconds after the restart, Hendrie again lacked composure in front of goal when he blazed over from 12 yards, while Dublin and Wright both saw shots saved by the increasingly busy Barthez.
Giggs came within a whisker of snuffing out the Villa threat when his curling free-kick smacked against the top of a post and Hadji denied John O'Shea his first United goal when the Moroccan headed off his own goal-line.
But Villa proved hard to shake off, even though their cutting edge grew blunter as the game wore on.
Graham Taylor threw on young striker Steven Cooke in place of Dublin but the damage was already done, leaving Villa still needing one more win to feel comfortable of Premiership survival.
United, conversely, moved back on to the shoulder of Arsenal as they signalled their intent to take the title race into the final furlong.
Aston Villa: Postma, Samuel, Mellberg, Johnsen, Wright,
Hendrie, Hitzlsperger, Hadji, Barry, Vassell, Dublin (Cooke 79).
Subs Not Used: Enckelman, Crouch, Kinsella, Edwards.
Booked: Wright, Hadji.
Man Utd: Barthez, Gary Neville, Ferdinand, O'Shea, Silvestre,
Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs, van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer.
Subs Not Used: Phil Neville, Blanc, Ricardo, Forlan, Fletcher.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).