Two early goals from Danny Welbeck eased the pressure on Manchester United manager David Moyes, as his team claimed a comfortable 3-0 win at Aston Villa.
The England international fired home a rebound off the post in the 15th minute before sliding home an Antonio Valencia cross three minutes later. Seven minutes into the second period, Wayne Rooney produced an excellent ball for Tom Cleverley to rifle home United's third.
The game at Villa Park was also notable for the return of Darren Fletcher, who made his first appearance for United in a year as a second-half substitute.
Villa had enjoyed a bright opening quarter with some good defending and build-up play, but United went ahead in the 15th minute.
Rafael crossed from the by-line, and Adnan Januzaj met the ball with a great header, but his effort cannoned off the post and fell invitingly for Welbeck, who fired home.
Three minutes later, he celebrated another goal after Cleverley fed a misplaced Nathan Baker pass to Valencia on the right flank. Welbeck met the winger's ball into the area and slid in at the near post to send it beyond Brad Guzan in the Villa goal.
In the 28th minute, Valencia and Rafael again combined down the right wing before the former Wigan man crossed for Rooney, who placed the ball just wide of the post. Five minutes later, Valencia slipped the ball to the speedy Welbeck, who darted forward before his shot went just wide.
The second half erupted with a pushing match between David de Gea and Gabriel Agbonlahor inside the area, after which referee Lee Mason cautioned both players.
In the 52nd minute, United effectively sealed the points.
Rooney intercepted another loose Villa pass. He raced forward before sliding the ball to Cleverley, who fired between Guzan and the near post to make it 3-0 to United.
Rooney also tried for goal with an ambitious free kick, which dropped well wide of Guzan's goal.
Rafael and Valencia continued to enjoy a profitable time on the right, and Welbeck was guilty of taking too long over a 56th-minute chance after a great ball from the winger. The Villa winger tested De Gea moments later in a rare foray upfield by the home side, but the United goalkeeper was able to punch the ball away.
Cleverley did well to block an Andreas Weimann shot as Villa began to find some space away from their own half.
In the 69th minute, United manager Moyes brought Ryan Giggs off for Fletcher, who made his first appearance in a year and was greeted by applause from all sides of Villa Park. Ashley Young also came on for Januzaj, although the former Villa man was not greeted with the same warmth as Fletcher.
Agbonlahor won a free kick for Villa in the 76th minute, and Karim El Ahmadi forced de Gea into a good stop.
Another great move involving Valencia and Welbeck set up Cleverley, but Guzan made a good save.
Wilfried Zaha was given a rare outing in place of Rooney in the 84th minute, and it took a good block to deny the former Crystal Palace winger moments later.
United will now head into their Capital One Cup quarter-final at Stoke City in confident mood.
But more importantly for Moyes and his team, the win could act as a springboard for a move further up the table over the Christmas period with matches against West Ham, Hull and Norwich coming up next for the Red Devils.
Big statement from United after difficult run. Interesting to see how Welbeck does, in his proper position, with Van Persie out for a month.— Rob Dawson (@RobDawsonMEN) December 15, 2013
Antonio Valencia, Manchester United: A+
He enjoyed a fruitful afternoon on the right flank in tandem with right-back Rafael. He provided a number of great crosses into the area and was rewarded with an assist for Welbeck's second.
Danny Welbeck, Manchester United: A
Two goals in three minutes provided the perfect platform for his return to the United starting lineup. He looked sharp and fast throughout the game and proved to be a constant threat to Villa.
Wayne Rooney, Manchester United: A
The United star might be renowned as a forward, but his passing illuminated his performance at Villa Park. The threaded ball through for Cleverley's goal early in the second period was delightful to watch.
Christian Benteke, Aston Villa: B-
Aston Villa supporters could be forgiven for asking what has happened to their striker. The forward lacked any of the confidence and swagger that made him such a threat last season, and his 79th-minute substitution came as little surprise.
United manager David Moyes was unimpressed with the treatment of Adnan Januzaj by Aston Villa players, as Sam Wallace of The Independent reported:
I'm annoyed with the fourth official and referees.
Before you know it the boy will get a sore one as he is definitely not getting protected by the officials.
It's terrible what they are allowing to go on at the moment. This boy is an incredible talent.
It's not necessarily the same player [fouling him], I think they are queuing up to see who will kick him next.
Moyes also praised the return of Darren Fletcher in Wallace's report:
We have been looking for more reserve team games for him and he seemed to cruise through them.
We thought we might need to get him back in the team. I thought he did a lot of good things.
If you are someone who maybe your career has been in jeopardy, in and out of hospital, that feeling of getting the jersey on again and playing must be incredible.
He should have scored from a header, though.
United goalscorer Tom Cleverley told Sky Sports (via Sportinglife.com):
It plays on your mind when you're a midfielder that you have to score a few goals.
We played as a three which gave us more licence. A year of not scoring came out in my celebration.
I think I played quite well and kept the ball and kept us ticking at a high tempo. I want to kick on from here now and so does the team.
Hopefully this is the start of a good run.