Manchester United made hard work of dispatching Middlesbrough at Old Trafford but after missing a glut of chances Dimitar Berbatov spared their blushes with the only goal of the game.
The Bulgarian volleyed home from close range in the 69th minute after Michael Carrick's left-wing cross had bounced back off Boro defender David Wheater.
Berbatov, who replaced Boxing Day's match-winner at Stoke Carlos Tevez after he returned to Argentina on a "family issue," was one of the guilty culprits in the first hour of the match. But he was not the alone with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael, Nemanja Vidic and Ji-sung Park all squandering chances against a determined Middlesbrough side.
United will probably have few games this season as one-sided as this but they were in real danger of stumbling in their bid to close the gap on leaders Liverpool.
Rooney should have given the hosts the lead when he sprang the offside trap in the 35th minute but inexplicably chose to pass rather than shoot and although they won a corner Vidic headed a good chance wide.
Ronaldo spent much of his walk to the tunnel complaining to referee Martin Atkinson he should have had a penalty after being grappled to the ground by Emanuel Pogatetz at a corner right on the whistle but the official was unmoved.
An indication things were not going United's way was when Park's shot was stopped by Vidic from Rooney's left-wing free-kick.
But Berbatov finally made the breakthrough in the 69th minute when he volleyed home from close range after Michael Carrick's cross from the left had rebounded off Wheater.
Park then produced a contender for miss of the season when he somehow ballooned over from three yards from substitute Gary Neville's cross, but United held out.