Having seen Arsenal throw down the title gauntlet earlier in the day, Manchester United responded with a three-goal victory over their own to climb back into second place. United's nervy win at Hull, which came courtesy of goals from the outstanding Wayne Rooney, an own goal from Andy Dawson and a late Dimitar Berbatov effort moved Sir Alex Ferguson's side back to within two points of league leaders Chelsea.
United began the match looking to avoid a third defeat in four league games which have occurred as a result of a raft of defensive injuries. After the failed three-man rearguard experiment at Fulham last weekend, which saw the champions ship three goals in a humbling defeat, Ferguson was boosted by the return of several key men and opted for a traditional back four. Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown started at the heart of the defence, while right-back Rafael da Silva returned from injury to complete a more familiar-looking United back-line.
The Hull manager, Phil Brown, who fielded a near full-strength team as he tried to engineer his side's climb out of the relegation places, would have feared the worst after seeing a more familiar looking United team-sheet before kick-off. But after a see-saw first half, in which United squandered possession with alarming regularity, Hull could count themselves unlucky not to have taken the lead. Numerous chances fell the home side's way and they will probably feel they should have been awarded a penalty but referee Alan Wiley, who Ferguson infamously called "unfit" after a 2-2 draw with Sunderland earlier this season, waved away a worthy claim following Brown's mistimed lunge on the lively Richard Garcia.
Hull's failure to capitalise cost them dear. Tomasz Kuszczak had already got down well to save Seyi Olofinjana's volley from Craig Fagan's teasing cross, before Stephen Hunt, the Republic of Ireland winger, dragged an effort wide. United upped the pace and Dimitar Berbatov shot into the side-netting after good work from Antonio Valencia. Then Rooney, often United's primary goal threat, scored his 13th league goal of the season deep into first-half injury time.
Hull's inability to clear their lines saw Darren Fletcher's dangerous right-wing centre evade an off-colour Ryan Giggs and reach Rooney five yards out. The England striker made no mistake and sent United into the break one up. But United handed Hull a lifeline 15 minutes in the second half. Rooney's inexplicably careless back-pass went straight to Fagan who rounded Kuszczak and crossed to the back-post. Rafael barged into the back of the oncoming Jozy Altidore and Wiley, who booked the young Brazilian, signalled a penalty.
In the absence of Hull's mercurial midfielder Jimmy Bullard, Fagan stepped up, sending the United keeper the wrong way to equalise. Ferguson, gesturing frantically on the touchline, hauled off the ineffective Valencia and introduced Ji-Sung Park. But with United uncharacteristically casual in attack, it was Hull who looked the more dangerous. Hunt was causing Rafael problems down the left channel and Garcia headed wide from a corner when he should have scored. Ultimately, it was Hull's desire for a winner which proved their undoing. They were caught with the classic sucker-punch.
United broke clear after defending a corner in their own box, Berbatov fed Giggs, who in turn found Rooney. Looking up to see the onrushing Park, Rooney aimed his centre at the South Korean but the ball was diverted into his own net by the hapless Dawson. Giggs made way for Gabriel Obertan in the 78th minute, however it was Rooney who continued to terrorise. Boaz Myhill's clearance was headed forward by Vidic to Rooney, who waited for what seemed like an eternity before threading a sublime pass to the unmarked Berbatov at the far-post. The much-maligned Bulgarian accepted the festive gift from his strike partner.