The most unlikely of heroes rescued United from an embarrassing 0-0 draw against 18th-placed Sunderland at Old Trafford on Saturday evening.
Nemanja Vidic scored his eighth United goal, and surely his most important, in the 91st minute to keep United in touching distance at the top of the table.
The Serbian was first to react after Michael Carrick’s deflected shot bounced off the post and back across goal, with Black Cats stopper Marton Fulop stranded.
Fulop had previously frustrated the Reds time and again, albeit aided by a Sunderland side so lacking in attacking ambition that their fans cheered a second-half throw-in near United’s corner flag as if their side had gone in front.
The visitors, rattled on Thursday by Roy Keane’s exit, certainly didn’t show too many signs of crumbling completely. They defended doggedly and would have been delighted to take a point off the English and European champions.
The Reds enjoyed most of the early possession, although Sir Alex’s men didn’t carve out any clear openings until the 12th minute, when Ronaldo’s clever flick found Berbatov on the edge of the box. He turned and fired goalwards, only to see goalkeeper Marton Fulop save well with his feet.
Berbatov started alongside Wayne Rooney, despite Carlos Tevez’s four-goal haul in midweek, and the pair linked well in the opening exchanges. Indeed, Sir Alex stuck with the same side that beat Manchester City at Eastlands last Sunday, and the familiarity appeared to breed confidence.
Cristiano Ronaldo earned a free kick on 14 minutes after his mazy run was halted illegally on the edge of the Sunderland area. Rather than blast the set-piece goalwards, however, the Ballon d’Or winner fooled everyone by laying the ball square into Rooney’s path. Wayne’s shot, more placement than power, was helped on its way by Berbatov, who again had the displeasure of watching Fulop save well.
Ten minutes later, Rooney opted only for power, when he volleyed spectacularly from 20 yards out. From certain angles, it looked as if the ball might arrow into the top corner, but in the end it sailed harmlessly wide and out for a goal kick.
Sunderland, meanwhile, lacked firepower. Dwight Yorke, returning to the club where he scored 66 goals, was less goal threat and more goal tender, as he patrolled the area just in front of the visitors’ back four. The only Sunderland man consistently playing as a forward was former Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse.
Ji-sung Park, who’d been lively early on, forced another save from Fulop on 28 minutes after linking well with Rooney. Park stretched to reach Rooney’s return ball but couldn’t muster enough power to beat the goalkeeper.
Park went close again shortly after, while Fletcher also fired over the bar after Michael Carrick’s miscued volley.
Sunderland’s best chance of the half came on 40 minutes, when Rio Ferdinand fouled Cisse 25 yards from goal. The Frenchman took the free-kick himself but only succeeded in firing it into the Reds’ wall.
The score may have been 0-0 at the break, but Sir Alex isn’t one to panic and stood by the 11 on the pitch. He did, however, deem it necessary to throw on Carlos Tevez on 58 minutes after Rooney, Carrick and Fletcher had all failed to send United into the lead.
Fletcher’s was perhaps the best chance, the Scot swivelling to hit a left-footed shot just past the post after good work from Rafael down the right.
The next chance, fashioned for Ronaldo when Berbatov picked the no.7 out with a clever cut-back, also missed the target. Ronny, under intense pressure as he shot, blazed over from 12 yards. It was his last meaningful involvement in the game, the challenge leaving the winger with a hip injury that forced him from the field shortly afterwards.
It prompted a double change – Giggs for Ronaldo, Anderson for Fletcher – and United’s record appearance-maker was next to miss the target, volleying wide from a tight angle.
To be fair, it was a difficult chance… which is more than can be said for the opportunity Dimitar Berbatov spurned with 15 minutes to play. Carrick’s teasing, pin-point ball from the left wing found the Bulgarian unmarked just seven yards from goal, but his radar, like his team-mates’, malfunctioned, and the ball sailed over the bar.
Nemanja Vidic did hit the target on 81 minutes. The Serbian did well to reach Rooney’s cross first, but his header was straight down Fulop’s throat.
Anderson, still without a goal in his Reds career, couldn’t capitalise on two late chances: he first saw a shot bravely blocked before Carrick’s volley from 18 yards fizzed past the Brazilian’s boot as he stretched to poke it home.
The match looked destined to end goalless until Vidic popped up in the Sunderland box to fire home the winner and send Old Trafford into dreamland.
United: Van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo (Giggs 68), Carrick, Fletcher (Anderson 68), Park (Tevez 57); Rooney, Berbatov
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Evans, Neville, Nani
Sunderland: Fulop; Chimbonda, Ferdinand, Collins, Bardsley; Malbranque, Whitehead (Edwards 76), Yorke, Reid, Diouf; Cisse (Jones 69)
Subs not used: Colgan, Tanio, Nosworthy, Murphy, Leadbitter