United climb back to summit
Cristiano Ronaldo scored a late winner to give Manchester United a hard-fought victory over Derby and pile the pressure on title rivals Arsenal.
The Portuguese star struck his 31st goal of the season 14 minutes from time to send United a point above the Gunners at the Premier League summit ahead of their evening kick-off against Middlesbrough.
The reigning champions dominated the first half but needed two fine saves from debutant goalkeeper Ben Foster just before the break to deny Mile Sterjovski and Kenny Miller and prevent doomed Derby taking a shock lead.
The Rams fought on after the interval and United's frustration grew as Ronaldo missed a string of chances before finally converting from a Wayne Rooney cross.
After being mauled 6-1 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in midweek, Sir Alex Ferguson would surely have expected his side to hand out more of the same punishment to Paul Jewell's beleaguered side at Pride Park.
For the opening 20 minutes the rout everyone had expected was on the cards as United carved up the hosts at will, and it appeared only a matter of time before they would make the breakthrough.
The intent was certainly there, instigated after just 70 seconds as Rooney and Ji-Sung Park combined for the latter to whip in a cross from the right wing.
Ryan Giggs, returning as captain after missing last week's 1-0 FA Cup loss to Portsmouth at Old Trafford with a calf injury, should have done better with a downward header, but only succeeded in finding the arms of the outstanding Roy Carroll.
It was the precursor to a flurry of chances as Ronaldo curled a left-foot shot narrowly wide with only Carroll to beat following a through ball from Patrice Evra.
Giggs then drilled a drive wide after again being picked out by Park from the right, followed swiftly by Ronaldo striking the base of the right-hand post with a low, curling shot from 15 yards.
Surely the goal would arrive, but no, with Giggs again the culprit in the 19th minute as he sliced a shot wide after being set free by Rooney and Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star, who had been on the receiving end of a late challenge and a shirt tug from Darren Moore and David Jones that had earned bookings for the pair, was again a whisker away just after the half-hour.
But despite curling a superb shot towards the top right-hand corner with the outside of his right foot, Carroll was equally as superb with his save as he clawed the ball away.
When the storm abated, Derby dared to take the lead themselves, only for Foster to underline his emerging talent with two stunning saves.
His first was a reaction stop as he turned aside a snap-shot from Sterjovski in the heart of the area, with his second moments later a fingertip stop in pushing away a low curler from Miller.
United ended the half with a Rooney drive into the side-netting and a shot across the face of goal from Ronaldo, but it was Derby who left the pitch to a rousing reception from their fans.
After the break, it was Ronaldo who had all the chances, two from long-distance free-kicks early on that swerved viciously.
The first was superbly parried by Carroll, who proceeded to save a point-blank header from the ensuing inswinging Giggs corner, while the second was inches past the post.
A drive into the side-netting then followed in the 71st minute at a stage when Derby were beginning to believe they could conjure an astonishing draw as they were battling manfully.
But in the end there was to be no stopping Ronaldo as he finally found the net with a 12-yard sidefoot finish to a Rooney centre after he had raced onto a looping through ball from substitute Darren Fletcher, on just two minutes earlier.
The game ended with two further opportunities for Ronaldo, but Carroll was equal to both, the culmination of a stirring battle between the game's two main protagonists.
Derby County Team Statistics Manchester United
0 Goals 1
0 1st Half Goals 0
3 Shots on Target 7
4 Shots off Target 8
5 Blocked Shots 5
5 Corners 11
15 Fouls 8
1 Offsides 3
4 Yellow Cards 1
0 Red Cards 0
66 Passing Success 74.5
15 Tackles 21
86.7 Tackles Success 71.4
38 Possession 62
52.4 Territorial Advantage 47.6