It was edgy, error-strewn and enlivened by moments of panic induced by David de Gea, but Manchester United overcame the bumps and bruises to move seven points clear at the top of the table thanks to a resurgent Wayne Rooney.
Southampton, showing signs of resilience under new manager Mauricio Pochettino, will wonder how they emerged from Old Trafford with nothing to show for their efforts after ensuring a nervous 90 minutes for Alex Ferguson's team.
The answer to that one, of course, is the contribution of Rooney, whose two goals ultimately proved the difference and enabled United to stretch their lead over Manchester City.
But De Gea's performance will be a cause for further concern to Ferguson. He was at fault for Southampton's goal and, for a 10-minute period in the second half, appeared to be a nervous wreck as mistake followed mistake. A stunning save from Rickie Lambert's 76th-minute free-kick emphasised his attributes, but De Gea is United's Achilles heel and their title challenge rests on limiting his errors.
City's failure to defeat Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Tuesday night had given United the opportunity to restore their lead to seven points, but the pre-match message Ferguson was clearly aimed at stamping out any complacency.
"'No easy games' is our motto," Ferguson declared in his programme notes after insisting it would be a "rubbish attitude" to view United's forthcoming fixtures against teams in the bottom half as a free ride to weekly victories.
However, Michael Carrick and De Gea conspired to gift Southampton a second-minute opener.
While Jay Rodriguez's goal was another moment that De Gea will want to forget, Carrick's lofted back-pass left the goalkeeper in a no-win situation as he left his goal-line. He lacked the courage to win the 50-50 with Rodriguez and the £6m forward poked the ball around the bewildered De Gea before slotting into an empty net.
Fortunately for Carrick and De Gea, though, Rooney came to their rescue six minutes later when he rounded off Shinji Kagawa's first-time pass by scoring the equaliser with a powerful strike past Artur Boruc from 15 yards.
The goal was Rooney's 100th at Old Trafford and it sparked a United onslaught before he claimed his 101st on 27 minutes. Robin van Persie saw a goalbound strike deflected behind by Maya Yoshida and Kagawa struck a post before Rooney put United ahead.
Southampton remained a threat, however, and a half-time tactical change by Pochettino, when he bolstered the midfield by replacing Gaston Ramirez and Jason Puncheon with Steven Davis and Adam Lallana, turned the tide in their favour.
Suddenly, Southampton were on the front foot and testing United's defensive frailties.
Chris Smalling was caught in possession, Rooney's stray passes twice instigated Southampton attacks and De Gea continued to be a cause for United's alarm.
After spilling a straightforward Rickie Lambert free-kick on 61 minutes, confidence drained away from the Spaniard.
Boxed in by Southampton, United struggled to get forward, but Van Persie was denied a third when Boruc produced a wonder save to keep out his 75th-minute header. It was a great example of the value of a good goalkeeper.
United have one in De Gea, but he is not proving that often enough. (© Daily Telegraph, London)