Carlos Tevez scored with seven minutes left to give Manchester United a 1-0 win at 10-man Stoke on what looked like a tired return to the Premier League by the defending champions.
United was far from its best after a midseason trip to Japan for the Club World Cup and had rarely troubled Stoke until Tevez scored from close range after a pass from Dimitar Berbatov.
Yesterday's victory was the first by one of the so-called "big four" for 20 days, with Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal all having gone winless since United departed for Japan.
Liverpool and Chelsea, though, soon emulated United by winning their first post-Christmas games. Liverpool stayed top with a 3-0 win over Bolton, while Chelsea beat bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion 2-0 to stay a point back in second.
Aston Villa strengthened its grip on third place by clinching a 2-2 draw in injury time against Arsenal, its nearest challenger for the final Champions League place.
United moved up to third place and remains ahead of Villa on goal difference.
The best chances United had managed to create before the Tevez strike were a long-range shot by Paul Scholes that forced a sharp save from goalkeeper Thomas Soerensen and Berbatov heading over the bar.
"At this stage of the season they are all big wins when you get them," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "Sometimes you have to be patient in games like this.