On a favourite ground against a team who have often been their most generous opponents, Manchester United found the going harder than usual – but fought back from two goals down to take this thrilling encounter thanks to Javier Hernandez.
The Mexican striker, a half-time substitute, scored twice and walked off holding the match ball, although the locals were claiming he should give it back as the dubious goals committee is likely to rule that one effort went in off Aston Villa's unfortunate captain, Ron Vlaar.
As the man himself said later, it does not really matter. The important thing was that until Hernandez popped up in the 87th minute for a low header just inside the post, it looked as though United would have to be satisfied with a draw, leaving them only two points head of Chelsea, who play at home to Liverpool today.
In 34 meetings United have lost only once to Villa, back in 2009. Even that game was not at Villa Park, where United remain unbeaten in the League since 1995, and have won numerous FA Cup semi-finals too. Often it is from a recovery like yesterday's; this was the third time in 10 years that Villa have failed to beat them after leading 2-0 here and three years ago United won after trailing 2-1 with 10 minutes left at Old Trafford.
All the statistics were a temptation to complacency and United were guilty of it even before falling behind with almost the last kick of the first half.
Home supporters have remained patient with Paul Lambert as he tries to fashion a younger side and a more attractive style, and they must have appreciated their team's efforts. The latest newcomer was Enda Stevens, the Irish left-back, given a demanding full debut against Antonio Valencia and acquitting himself well, losing out only when Rafael charged forward to create a two-on-one. There was occasionally a recklessness about the way both United's full-backs attacked and the swift counters that sometimes resulted offered some of Villa's best moments, especially when Stephen Ireland was running through the middle.
The Belgian striker Christian Benteke showed why he has been keeping Darren Bent out of the side and it was his combination of power and perception that led to the breakthrough. Chris Smalling, who had only returned for the Champions' League game at Braga in midweek, was simply shouldered off the ball by Benteke, who muscled inside him and laid a perfect ball back to the unmarked Andreas Weimann, scoring smartly from inside the penalty area.
That was Weimann's first goal of the season but five minutes into the second half the Viennese waltzed in again for a second. Gabriel Agbonlahor's pace troubled United, and he sped down the left to cross low for the forward, who could not miss.
To the delight of the home crowd Ashley Young, booed with every touch, made way at half-time for Hernandez, a good switch even by Sir Alex Ferguson's standards. Scholes made the first goal with a shrewd pass from just inside his own half and Hernandez, onside, shook off Ciaran Clark's challenge to finish.
"Attack, attack, attack" the visiting hordes in the Doug Ellis Stand. Scholes missed a header from Van Robin Persie's corner but then fed a pass out to Rafael for a cross that Hernandez drove in off Vlaar.
It had become a classic encounter of all-out attacking. Weimann deserved a hat-trick but was denied it by David de Gea's brilliant save and United came back for an extraordinary sequence in which Van Persie struck the bar twice in as many minutes. They then lost Rooney with an ankle injury, as England may do for Wednesday's friendly in Sweden.
Hernandez had the last word, and there were no doubts about where the goal credit will go this time as he stooped to head Van Persie's free-kick past a despairing Guzan. It left Lambert "absolutely gutted".
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Stevens; Westwood, Bannan (Delph, 87); Weimann (Holman, 80), Ireland (El Ahmadi, 79), Agbonlahor; Benteke.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes (Cleverley, 71); Valencia, Rooney (Anderson, 79), Young (Hernandez, h-t); Van Persie
Referee: Kevin Friend.
Man of the match: Scholes (Man Utd)
Match rating: 9/10