Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez scored perhaps the most important goal of his phenomenal debut season for United, nodding a late winner as Everton were beaten amid dramatic scenes at Old Trafford.
David Moyes' side had turned in a magnificently dogged display to frustrate the Reds for long periods, before Chicharito popped up with six minutes remaining to nod home, perhaps symbolically, his 19th goal of the season and move United three points closer to a 19th domestic crown.
The Mexican's strike prompted a mass outpouring of relief from the home support after a largely frustrating afternoon. Fronted by impressively well-drilled visitors, the Reds squandered a series of first half openings and found Tim Howard in solid form, while Michael Owen also struck the outside of the visitors' post late on.
The Reds might have even suffered worse, had Edwin van der Sar not produced a wonderful fingertip save to deny Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell midway through the second period.
With one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final, first leg trip to Schalke, Sir Alex made the most of the squad at his disposal, resting Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling and naming Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick on the bench. Dimitar Berbatov missed out with a persistent groin injury.
Rio Ferdinand partnered Jonny Evans for only the second time this season, Fabio replaced Evra, Darron Gibson stepped in for Carrick and Giggs’ absence was covered by the returning Antonio Valencia.
Everton, meanwhile, came into the game as one of the Premier League’s form teams, with 14 points from the last 18 available, despite a raft of injuries which again reduced decimated their ranks. Tim Cahill did provide a timely boost for David Moyes, however, as he was deemed fit enough for a spot on the visitors’ bench.
The Toffees’ form had brought them into contention for European qualification berths. Nevertheless, United’s need was greater; a state of play reflected in the early patterns within the game. How the Reds reached the interval without scoring was flummoxing – not that former United stopper Howard was inundated with questions to answer; more that the hosts repeatedly failed to make the most of presentable positions.
The movement of Chicharito and the positive possession and passing of Anderson presented problems aplenty for the visitors. Wayne Rooney dictated United’s tempo, dropping into the hole behind the Mexican marksman with promising regularity. It was he who had the game’s first effort, a 25-yard effort which deflected wide from Nani’s disguised free-kick.
Everton’s remit mainly concerned defending in the opening period, but their sporadic threat on the break invariably involved Leon Osman, operating in a similar position to Rooney, and he took advantage of space in the midfield area to poke a half-hit effort straight at Edwin van der Sar. The Dutchman wouldn’t make another save all half.
Instead, United repeatedly sprung the hosts’ high line. Nani dwelled and shot straight at Howard after a three-on-three break, then Chicharito’s cross was deflected into the American’s arms after another swift counter led by Fabio. Chicharito soon had Howard earning his pay – drawing a smart stop from the American with a near post effort and then forcing him to beat another powerful effort behind after fine approach play from Rooney.
For all the trouble being caused by the little Mexican, he inadvertently helped the visitors escape the clearest opening of the half. Valencia outmuscled Leighton Baines and pulled back for Nani. Having slipped, Chicharito then sat helpless as he blocked the Portuguese winger's effort wide with his outstretched heel.
There was still time for one more United break to fizzle out into nothingness in the first period. Rooney sprung Everton’s line, required two touches to bring the ball into position and defenders had swarmed around Chicharito by the time he released the cross. Somehow, once again, Moyes’ side survived.
Mindful of the need to offer more attacking input, the Everton manager introduced Cahill and Victor Anichebe at the start of the second half as replacements for Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Jermaine Beckford, who had both been largely anonymous.
The move initially stymied United’s flow. Sir Alex Ferguson joined assistant Mike Phelan on the touchline to evaluate the impact the changes would have. It took eight minutes for the Reds to forge another opening, before again Phil Jagielka slammed the door in the hosts’ faces, steaming in to clear Chicharito’s centre before Rooney could pounce.
Everton were by far more competitive as a result of their changes, however, and the pace of Anichebe took him away from Ferdinand and into the United area. The youngster tumbled under pressure from the veteran defender, but referee Peter Walton opted against an award. Everton’s players, management and fans were irate, but replays suggested that Anichebe had willingly succumbed to gravity.
The non-award only served to turn up the heat on an encounter which was increasingly simmering. Anderson and Cahill both entered the book for late challenges in quick succession, before Sir Alex opted to change his own approach by throwing on Michael Owen for Nani. Patrice Evra also entered the fray at the expense of John O'Shea, who was seemingly carrying an injury.
United's frustration was growing, but the mood inside Old Trafford briefly became one of overwhelming relief when, with 23 minutes remaining, Jack Rodwell's deflected 25-yard shot was magnificently turned past the post by van der Sar.
That chance prompted a wave of United pressure, with both sides decamped to the visitors' half. Owen struck the outside of Howard's post as he redirected Fabio's centre, before Rooney came close with a curling free-kick which was tipped over.
Howard then produced his finest save; tipping over Chicharito's close-range header after Valencia's initial effort had been heroically blocked. Still United kept knocking on the door, and finally it opened with seven minutes remaining.
Distin was caught in possession by Valencia, who then received the ball back from Anderson. The Ecuadorian's cross was deflected off Distin, and fell beautifully for Chicharito to nod home from deep inside the six-yard box at the far post.
Cue widespread pandemonium inside Old Trafford - although jitters soon crept back in when referee Walton gave the signal for five added minutes. The excellent Jagielka blazed wildly over and van der Sar clutched a Cahill header, before the final whistle sparked further scenes of choral revelling among the home support.
Another 90 minutes closer to the end of an epic season, and three points closer to number 19. The onus is now on Arsenal and Chelsea to keep pace before facing the league leaders in the coming weeks.