Antonio Valencia's deflected injury-time effort preserved Manchester United's long Champions League unbeaten home record and swept Sir Alex Ferguson's men into the last 16.
Trailing 3-1 to a spirited CSKA Moscow outfit with barely six minutes remaining, Sir Alex Ferguson's side delved into their box of tricks, pulling a goal back through Paul Scholes before Valencia's 25-yard effort flew in off Georgi Schennikov.
The perfect ending was denied new dad Wayne Rooney when he curled what would have been the winner over the bar.
Ferguson can now use the remaining two matches to utilise his squad strength and, maybe, offer a comeback to Owen Hargreaves.
The more immediate task though is to prepare for Sunday's Barclays Premier League showdown with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. And in that regard, Ferguson might be more than a touch worried because the visitors' three goals all came with ridiculous ease.
There is something unsatisfactory at the loss of a long unbeaten run at the hands of unheralded opponents.
It does not seem quite right for instance that after 40 years without defeat, the first team to win a European game at Old Trafford turned out to be Fenerbahce, rather than one of the old heavyweights that roll off the tongue.
And so, after a four-and-a-half year, 22-game run stretching back to a knockout stage loss in AC Milan in February 2005, it was a depressingly familiar feeling at half-time for Ferguson against a team United defeated in the Russian capital a fortnight ago.
CSKA have undergone a mini revolution since ditching Juande Ramos as coach and installing Leonid Slutski in his place.
After revealing yesterday his playing career ended as a teenager when he fell out of a tree completing the heroic rescue of a neighbour's cat, Ferguson soon discovered Slutski had more surprises in store.
Within the opening 30 seconds Alan Dzagoev had fired over after striding through a static United defence and only two minutes were on the clock when Deividas Semberas flashed a shot wide.
Given Ferguson had only just declared his faith in central defensive pairing Jonny Evans and Wes Brown to keep Chelsea out on Sunday should the respective calf injuries of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand keep them out, it was not an ideal start.
For a while it did not seem as though the frailty would matter.
Valencia justified his manager's declaration that his form has improved markedly over the past few weeks and although neither Michael Owen nor strike partner Federico Macheda - who was making his Champions League debut - could profit from the Ecuador star's incisiveness, it seemed only a matter of time before the hosts scored.
There was a sense of bewilderment therefore when the opening goal ended up in the home net.
Evgeni Aldonin floated a cross towards target man Tomas Necid, who chested it first-time to Dzagoev, who found himself with only Evans to run at.
The young Northern Ireland star appeared to have done the right thing in shadowing Dzagoev down the channel. The Russian though had a pretty startling response, lashing a shot into the far corner from an acute angle which Van der Sar barely reacted to as it whizzed past.
Owen drilled home a typical poacher's effort in response but parity lasted one minute as Milos Krasic galloped into the box unchallenged, collected Necid's pass, skipped past Van der Sar and, after a neat pivot, tapped into an empty net.
If Ferguson had called for more solidity at half-time, the words fell on deaf ears as within two minutes of the restart, Dzagoev had floated a free-kick to the far post where Vasili Berezutski nodded home.
The home cause was not helped when Darren Fletcher was denied a certain penalty when he was chopped down by Berezutski, the irritation only compounded when the Scot was booked for diving.
Rooney's introduction just before the hour mark offered England's most deadly striker the chance to provide baby Kai with the most appropriate arrival present as well as offering United a solution to their predicament.
He nearly managed it too, only to be denied twice by Igor Akinfeev who made excellent follow-up saves after initially repelling Owen and Macheda's header had struck a post.
It seemed United would finally be beaten. We really should have known better.Reuse content