Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney both scored in the last ten minutes as United bucked up to book their place in the FA Cup fourth round.
The Portuguese star stole in front of Aston Villa full-back Wilfred Bouma to prod home the first goal from Ryan Giggs's low cross in the 81st minute, just when a dour tie seemed destined for a replay at Old Trafford. And when Ronaldo's 89th minute shot was initially blocked, substitute Rooney drilled the rebound past Scott Carson - this just moments after the Villa keeper had made a double save from Michael Carrick.
With only stoppage time remaining, there was really no time for Martin O'Neill's side to recover - especially when it was a side so devoid of any real attacking threat. United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar had even less to do than he did in his previous appearance, when he kept a clean sheet at Liverpool in mid-December.
Van der Sar's return was one of four changes to the team which narrowly defeated Villa’s arch-rivals Birmingham on New Year’s Day. Ryan Giggs replaced Nani, Louis Saha deputised for the injured Carlos Tevez and Wes Brown - the subject of a rejected bid from Newcastle - returned at right-back at the expense of John O’Shea.
Anderson fired the first shot across Villa's bows when he burst forward from midfield in the fifth minute. The Brazilian travelled a similar distance to Giggs in his epic ’99 goal on the same ground but unlike Arsenal, Aston Villa didn’t present a string of defenders for the United attacker to slalom around. The exposed Carson blocked Anderson's shot, although it was too strong for the Villa keeper to clutch it at the first time of asking.