Phil Jones scored the first goal of his career as Manchester United ground out their fourth one-nil win in five league games to beat Aston Villa.
The 19-year-old side-footed home Nani's cross from the left in the first half.
The visitors were always in control, but James Collins might have snatched a point when his late header was tipped over by Anders Lindegaard.
Injuries to Javier Hernandez, Shay Given and Jermaine Jenas marred a fairly insipid contest.
Did you know?
Manchester United are now unbeaten in their last 16 Premier League visits to Villa Park
City's 5-1 demolition of Norwich put the pressure on United, who knew defeat would leave them eight points behind their big-spending rivals.
But this particular test was passed with considerable ease as United returned to second in the table with the win.
The blue half of Manchester might be sitting pretty at the summit, but they will be acutely aware of the trophy-winning pedigree their neighbours possess.
It was not a lesson in football at Villa Park, but it was a masterclass in how to grind out results - the type of which have helped United win 12 titles in the last 20 years.
They dominated possession, looked solid at the back and always seemed to have an extra gear going forward.
However, United had to overcome an early setback when striker Hernandez was taken off with suspected ankle ligament damage, sustained when he got his studs caught in the turf.
Antonio Valencia was brought on in his place, with Nani pushed up front alongside Wayne Rooney, and Villa had no answer to the pace, movement and skill of the new-look front three.
So it was no surprise when Jones put the visitors in front.
Playing in midfield, the versatile 19-year-old timed his run into the box to perfection to confidently stroke home Nani's nicely-flighted cross.
Did you know?
The attendance of 40,053 was the highest at Villa Park this season
The chances kept coming with Given making a good save from Nani's header and Valencia's 35-yard shot sailing just over as United tried to turn the screw.
The game's injury jinx struck again when Given was taken off with a hamstring injury as the problems piled up for the shot-shy Villans.
After being booed off at half-time, the hosts were brighter in the second half and Emile Heskey should have done better when he headed over the bar from three yards out after Richard Dunne had steered the ball towards goal from a corner.
It was a poor finish, symptomatic of the problems faced by the Midlanders since the goals have dried up in recent weeks.
Alex McLeish left winger Charles N'Zogbia out of his starting line-up because of a breach of club discipline, but the home side could have done with the sort of spark their £9.5m summer signing can provide.
There was plenty of industry from Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton and Jenas, but very little in the way of flair.
Lindegaard was making only his fifth appearance of the season in the United goal, with Ferguson opting to rest David de Gea, and the Dane was rarely troubled on his way to a third successive Premier League clean sheet of the campaign.
He did, however, make a fantastic fingertip save from a James Collins header with 15 minutes remaining.
Rooney, who pulled the strings for United alongside Nani and Jones, might have sealed victory when he blazed over with just three minutes remaining.
But United closed out the match without any further alarms to stay within striking distance of Roberto Mancini's pacesetters.
The performance of Jones, in particular, was significant for the Red Devils with England manager Fabio Capello's assertion that the teenager can be a star in both defence and midfield looking to be a fairly sound judgement.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson:
Phil Jones took his goal very well. It was a good time to score and it settled us down.
It was a solid performance and winning away from home in the Premier League is never easy.
I think we did well today.
Live Text Commentary
Full Time The referee blows his whistle to end the game.90:00 +2:57
The ball is delivered by Luis Nani.89:36
Shot from just outside the area by Emile Heskey misses to the left of the target.89:16
The assistant referee flags for offside against Danny Welbeck. Bradley Guzan restarts play with the free kick.88:44
The ball is sent over by Marc Albrighton.87:17
Shot from deep inside the area by Wayne Rooney clears the crossbar.84:17
Wayne Rooney is caught offside. Bradley Guzan restarts play with the free kick.82:25
Foul by Nemanja Vidic on Emile Heskey, free kick awarded. Barry Bannan delivers the ball from the free kick left-footed from right channel.79:13
Free kick awarded for a foul by Patrice Evra on Marc Albrighton. Marc Albrighton delivers the ball from the free kick right-footed from right wing, clearance by Michael Carrick.79:00
Stephen Warnock crosses the ball, clearance by Phil Jones.77:56 Substitution
Substitution Danny Welbeck joins the action as a substitute, replacing Ashley Young.77:16
Ashley Young takes a shot. Save made by Bradley Guzan.75:24
Inswinging corner taken left-footed by Barry Bannan, Stiliyan Petrov has a headed effort at goal from close in which goes wide right of the goal.74:33
Outswinging corner taken by Barry Bannan. Richard Dunne sends in a cross, James Collins takes a shot. Brilliant save by Anders Lindegaard.73:33
Unfair challenge on Marc Albrighton by Patrice Evra results in a free kick. The free kick is swung in left-footed by Barry Bannan, save by Anders Lindegaard.73:04
Ashley Young produces a right-footed shot from outside the penalty box and misses wide left of the target.72:43
Antonio Valencia delivers the ball, clearance by James Collins.70:04
Corner taken left-footed by Ryan Giggs from the right by-line, clearance made by James Collins.68:47
Gabriel Agbonlahor takes a shot. Nemanja Vidic gets a block in. Inswinging corner taken by Barry Bannan, Emile Heskey produces a header from deep inside the six-yard box that clears the crossbar.68:23
Foul by Michael Carrick on Stiliyan Petrov, free kick awarded. Free kick taken by Stiliyan Petrov.
The ball is delivered by Marc Albrighton, Emile Heskey takes a shot. Comfortable save by Anders Lindegaard.66:27
The assistant referee flags for offside against Ashley Young. Bradley Guzan restarts play with the free kick.65:45
The ball is sent over by Stephen Warnock, clearance by Patrice Evra.63:08 Substitution
Substitution Ryan Giggs replaces Rio Ferdinand.62:25 Substitution
Substitution Jermaine Jenas goes off and Emile Heskey comes on.59:00
Centre by Gabriel Agbonlahor, Anders Lindegaard makes a comfortable save.58:08 Substitution
Substitution Stiliyan Petrov replaces Chris Herd.56:17
Chris Smalling gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Gabriel Agbonlahor. Stephen Warnock takes the free kick.54:24
Luis Nani takes a shot. Comfortable save by Bradley Guzan.52:15
Luis Nani sends in a cross, save by Bradley Guzan.50:48
Outswinging corner taken left-footed by Barry Bannan, Nemanja Vidic makes a clearance.50:44
Gabriel Agbonlahor produces a cross, Chris Smalling gets a block in.50:22
Stephen Warnock sends in a cross, clearance made by Nemanja Vidic.49:20
Free kick awarded for a foul by Chris Smalling on Gabriel Agbonlahor. Bradley Guzan takes the free kick.48:03
Wayne Rooney takes a shot and went wide left of the target.47:10
The ball is sent over by Antonio Valencia, clearance made by Barry Bannan.45:01
The second half kicks off.45:00 +8:02 Half time
Half Time The referee calls an end to the first half.45:00 +6:06
Corner taken by Ashley Young.45:00 +5:52
Unfair challenge on Patrice Evra by Darren Bent results in a free kick. Patrice Evra restarts play with the free kick.45:00 +5:10
Corner taken right-footed by Ashley Young from the right by-line to the near post, Darren Bent makes a clearance.45:00 +4:04
Phil Jones fouled by Stephen Warnock, the ref awards a free kick. Luis Nani produces a shot on goal direct from the free kick.45:00 +2:33
The ball is sent over by Michael Carrick, Stephen Warnock manages to make a clearance.45:00 +1:54
Corner taken right-footed by Ashley Young from the left by-line, Richard Dunne manages to make a clearance.45:00 +1:44
Patrice Evra produces a cross, blocked by Alan Hutton.45:00 +0:25
Gabriel Agbonlahor fouled by Antonio Valencia, the ref awards a free kick. Stephen Warnock takes the free kick.43:05
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Ashley Young by James Collins. Michael Carrick restarts play with the free kick.42:06
The offside flag is raised against Gabriel Agbonlahor. Free kick taken by Anders Lindegaard.41:33
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Marc Albrighton by Ashley Young. Alan Hutton takes the direct free kick.39:52
Phil Jones challenges Chris Herd unfairly and gives away a free kick. Stephen Warnock restarts play with the free kick.37:14 Substitution
Substitution Bradley Guzan is brought on as a substitute for Shay Given.31:22
Shot from long range by Antonio Valencia goes wide of the left-hand post.25:55
Free kick awarded for a foul by Antonio Valencia on Stephen Warnock. Barry Bannan crosses the ball in from the free kick.25:22
Luis Nani challenges Jermaine Jenas unfairly and gives away a free kick. Free kick taken by Shay Given.24:16
Luis Nani takes a shot. Shay Given makes a save.23:29
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Patrice Evra by Marc Albrighton. Free kick taken by Anders Lindegaard.22:36
The assistant referee signals for offside against Darren Bent. Rio Ferdinand takes the indirect free kick.21:16
The assistant referee signals for offside against Antonio Valencia. Shay Given takes the indirect free kick.20:38
Inswinging corner taken from the right by-line by Barry Bannan, Chris Herd takes a shot. Comfortable save by Anders Lindegaard.19:01
Luis Nani provided the assist for the goal.19:01 Goal scored
Goal! - Phil Jones - A Villa 0 - 1 Man Utd A goal is scored by Phil Jones from close in high into the middle of the goal. Aston Villa 0-1 Man Utd.18:56
Luis Nani crosses the ball,18:03
Outswinging corner taken from the right by-line by Ashley Young.14:36
Shot by Phil Jones from outside the box goes high over the crossbar.12:02
Shot from just outside the box by Luis Nani misses to the right of the target.11:17 Substitution
Substitution Antonio Valencia is brought on as a substitute for Javier Hernandez.0:00
The referee gets the match started.
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