Marcus Rashford’s deflected stoppage-time strike secured Manchester United a hard-fought victory against Wolves and ensured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men start 2021 second in the Premier League.
The encounter was the fourth meeting of these sides in 2020 and looked set to end with them sharing a third goalless draw as the hectic festive schedule took its toll.
But United dug deep and eked out a late winner at an empty Old Trafford, with Rashford capping a year to remember – on and off the field – by sealing a 1-0 triumph at the death.
It was a welcome shot in the arm at the end of a topsy-turvy 2020 for United, who are now two points off leaders Liverpool ahead of their match against Newcastle on Wednesday.
United were ponderous in periods and looked set to fall short, with Bruno Fernandes seeing a close-range strike denied in the first half and Edinson Cavani having a goal ruled out for offside after the break.
Man of the match Romain Saiss was Wolves’ biggest threat and made an unwanted impact in stoppage time when Rashford’s effort hit him and found the back of the net.
Solskjaer made six changes from the Boxing Day draw at Leicester and his side’s early attempts to unsettle Wolves’ rejigged five-man backline quickly faded.
The visitors made the brighter start to proceedings and David De Gea was called into action three times in the opening 13 minutes.
While the saves from Pedro Neto and Vitinha were straightforward, there was real venom behind long-range specialist Ruben Neves’ strike from an Adama Traore cutback.
Wolves were also looking a threat from set-pieces and defender Saiss saw a looping header hit the top of the bar after meeting a free-kick.
Bellowing skipper Conor Coady knitted things together from the back with his constant encouragement and instructions as United floundered.
It took 34 minutes for the home side to finally muster a shot on target. Mason Greenwood followed lovely footwork with a fine left-footed cross to the far post, where Fernandes could only direct straight at Rui Patricio.
Wolves responded strongly to that let-off as Saiss once again proved a nuisance from a free-kick, peeling away at the near post to meet a free-kick that De Gea did well to stop.
Play was flowing from end to end when half-time was called, only for the match to become scrappier when play resumed with Luke Shaw on in place of Alex Telles.
Rashford picked up a booking for a foul on 18-year-old Ki-Jana Hoever, who was impressing on his first Premier League start, before the frustrated forward just failed to reach a clever clipped ball over the Wolves defence by Paul Pogba.
Rashford headed over as Anthony Martial came on in a bid to inject a new dimension into United’s attack.
They finally found the back of the net in the 69h minute. Eric Bailly headed on a Shaw corner and Cavani slotted home, but the offside flag was raised and the video assistant referee decided Coady’s handball before the finish was accidental.
De Gea tipped over a towering Saiss header, unaware the centre-back was offside, and Pogba saw a strike from distance on the bounce saved by Patricio, who was booked for time-wasting with more than 15 minutes remaining.
Play became stretched as Martial curled over and Rashford was blocked, before De Gea got down low to thwart Rayan Ait-Nouri.
The United goalkeeper’s next involvement was an inadvertent clash with Traore that left him requiring treatment and the match looked set to end goalless as it entered stoppage time.
But a hopeful ball from Fernandes gave Rashford a glimmer of hope, with the forward cutting inside and jinking into space in the box before unleashing a shot that Saiss deflected past his own goalkeeper.