Sunderland travelled to Manchester in the aftermath of United legend Roy Keane resigning as manager from the North East club. United fans were denied the opportunity to hail their treble-winning captain; in his absence, Sunderland were focused only on preserving a scoreless draw.
Serving the second game of a touchline ban, Sir Alex Ferguson was again relegated to the stands, next to longtime friend and club director, the 1966 winner of the Ballon d'Or, Sir Bobby Charlton.
The newly appointed 2008 winner, United winger Cristiano Ronaldo, was the only United player frustrated in the first half as the Reds dominated possession against a recalcitrant Sunderland side.
Ronaldo himself was on both ends of several silly challenges, and continued his tendency to lose concentration during play. Relative to his high standards, the European Footballer of the Year had the poorest of first halves for a United player.
Ronaldo started well, however, and at 11 minutes he flicked on nicely to Berbatov who fired after a good first touch, slightly scuffing the shot at the Sunderland keeper.
At 13 minutes, Ronaldo made one of his best runs this year, eventually losing his balance but drawing a foul outside the 18-yard box.
Ronaldo and Rooney combined cleverly on the resulting free-kick. Ronaldo ostentatiously performed his pre-kick ritual before ultimately squaring to Rooney, who fired low into the corner, but Berbatov flicked the shot back at the keeper.
After 27 minutes the statistics didn't lie: United had completed 189 passes to Sunderland's 70, leading 6-0 on shot attempts. After a half hour, the United fans began their first and last Keano chant, as it rang out loudly around Old Trafford throughout several iterations.
A minute later, United's new No.16, Michael Carrick, passed brilliantly with his left-foot but a poor touch from Rooney snuffed out what should have been United's first goal. The first half ended after 10 minutes of rather dull, one-sided football.
As the second half started, Rooney was again seen giving Ronaldo a pep-talk in the center circle, just as he did before the Derby match last Saturday. The second half started as the first half ended; slowly, with United dominating play but failing to find meaningful shots.
The substitutions started after 56 minutes. First Ji-Sung Park came off for Carlos Tevez; Old Trafford's cheers could have been for either player, Park having put in another effective shift in red.
After an hour, the ever-smiling Dwight Yorke enjoyed what was likely his last of many curtain calls at Old Trafford as he came off for Teemu Tainio, while Ronaldo nursed a newly- acquired knock.
Several minutes later, quite inexplicably, Ronaldo implored to be substituted, kicking the ball out to touch, scowling, and walking directly off the pitch, as Fergie scrambled to call down to the touchline.
United played the next three minutes a man down until Giggs entered for Ronaldo and Anderson substituted for Fletcher.
Kenwyne Jones came on for the Black Cats to partner Cisse up front, perhaps now fancying their chances of nicking all three points as United pressed desperately.
Giggs and Rafael each showed their age on 70 minutes when the youngster broke through two Sunderland players to drive the ball down the wing, eventually crossing well for Giggs who completely miscued an ambitious volley.
Anderson, dribbling, instead of passing, through midfield, with purpose and pace, gave United a new energy.
Giggs' next contribution was another errant pass which ended a long United build-up, each goal-kick absorbing 30 seconds off the dooming game-clock. United's next attack ended with Giggs sending a long-cross over the heads of each player in both colors, and most spectators.
Berbatov missed the then best chance of the game on 74 minutes, as Carrick crossed onto the Bulgarian's head, six yards out, the flick flying over.
United pressed forward, as ever, with constant half-chances, Vidic heading at the keeper on 80 minutes.
A usually quiet Old Trafford erupted on 81 minutes, immediately inspiring two great opportunities for United, both squandered, as Sunderland clamped down the hatches and rigged for dive.
Vidic and Ferdinand inhaled all of Sunderland's forward play, and United ended the game constantly winning corner kicks as Sunderland invariably cleared.
The anxiety around Old Trafford was palpable.
On 90 minutes, Nemanja Vidic, apparently on his own simple, blunt, attacking intuition, made a lumbering 50-yard-run through midfield as Carrick shot from range, the strike coming off the post to the plundering Serbian. Vidic shanked his shot into the back of the net and Old Trafford's relief valve was finally opened, 1-0.
Rooney picked up his fifth yellow card of the season on 92 minutes, the first card of the game; Referee Mark Halsey, refreshingly, has only issued nine yellow cards in 10 games this season. Rooney will now miss the next Premier League match against Tottenham.
United's trademark for late winners hasn't showcased overly since Van Nistelrooy plowed the grass in Manchester, but Vidic was able to extract one more moment of inspiration from the United's historical pool of brilliance. Three points were vital to maintain relative parity with Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool, all having already won today.
A victory like this might tend to be overlooked in the long-run, but the timing is especially crucial as United enter a grueling portion of the season, travelling to Tokyo for the World Club Championships before finishing the year in the famously congested holiday season in the English top flight.
You'd never begrudge Sunderland for circling the wagons in the midst of such a foul time for their club; however, only United fans went home happy today.
Van der Sar:  Didn't have to do anything. What rating do you give a player who doesn't have to do anything? Six.
Rafael : Played with great energy; wasn't perfect, but another 90 quality minutes under the belt of our future right-back.
Ferdinand: [7.5] Orchestrated our movement into midfield after constantly quelling weak Sunderland attacks.
Vidic:  "Monster" dominated a quicker Cisse, using positioning and strength imperiously. Inexplicably made a hugely ambitious run, plundering with Serbian single-mindedness, saving three precious points that United hugely deserved.
Evra:  Patty did little wrong today, but has enjoyed more attacking success against other teams. One of our most consistent players.
Ji-Sung: [7.5] Showed some skills in addition to his expected doggedness. Unsung Ji-Sung as usual.
Carrick:  Getting forward much more than last year. Currently enjoying a run of form stretching over several weeks. Shooting from range with his left-foot, effectively, gives great evidence to his newfound confidence.
Fletcher: [7.5] It's easy to argue how competitive Sunderland's midfield is, but against it, Fletcher looked quite dominating.
Ronaldo: [6.5] Ronaldo's runs last only into the opponent's third where last year, with a healthy ankle, he'd get a good shot off or reach the byline. He was frustrated throughout, despite some good play, and eventually just walked off the pitch, his second rather inscrutable act in as many EPL matches.
Rooney  Passed and ran well; very mature display. Appears to have Ronaldo's ear, and the winger could use the advice. Rooney is in good form despite lacking goals.
Berbatov [7.5] Berbatov is the classiest player on most pitches he plays on; however, his lack of aggression and sometimes questionably passive decision-making means a lack of overall effect. The class inherent in his balance, touches and reading of the game will be lost in history without the tangible results to support it.