MANCHESTER:Carlos Tevez sealed a narrow victory for Manchester United as the Premier League champions opened 2008 with a 1-0 victory against Birmingham City at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
But the joy United felt at staying just two points behind leaders Arsenal was tempered by the sight of Argentina striker Tevez having to be helped off into the dressing room at full-time with what appeared to be an ankle injury.
Tevez's first-half goal was enough to secure all three points for United, but the home side should have emerged with a far greater winning margin after dominating the game against Alex McLeish's strugglers.
United, without flu-victim Wayne Rooney for the second successive game, desperately needed to pick up all three points to keep ahead of Chelsea and remain on Arsenal's coat-tails in the race for the Premiership title.
But Birmingham's recent record at Old Trafford certainly would not have given United any reason to worry about the outcome of the fixture.
The Midlands club had not won at Old Trafford since 1978, their last goal at the ground coming as far back as 1981, both sobering statistics for McLeish to contemplate as he confronted Aberdeen mentor Sir Alex Ferguson.
United's 2-1 defeat at West Ham on Saturday would have given the hosts warning of the dangers of taking fixtures lightly in the Premier League, however, and they started in a determined mood, almost taking the lead through Tevez after just six minutes.
Patrice Evra's run down the left flank took him into the penalty area and he delivered a precise cross for Tevez, who headed against the near post from six yards out.
Birmingham threatened to make life difficult for United when Gary McSheffrey sent a left-foot shot narrowly wide of Tomasz Kuszczak's post but Ferguson's men shrugged off the scare to continue to heap pressure on City.
John O'Shea and Ronaldo both went close to scoring as United kept Birmingham penned back inside their own half before Nani sent a 30-yard effort flashing inches wide.
But the breakthrough came for United in the 25th minute when Tevez netted his tenth goal of the season. Rio Ferdinand, ignoring the sight of injured Birmingham striker Cameron Jerome on the ground just outside the centre circle, punted the ball forward to Ronaldo, whose back-heel released Tevez on the edge of the penalty area.
The former West Ham striker took a touch to control the ball before calmly slotting past goalkeeper Maik Taylor from twelve yards.
McSheffrey worried United again seconds before half-time when he sliced another left-foot shot wide of the near post, but the second-half brought more domination from the champions and Ronaldo was only denied a second by the reflexes of Blues keeper Taylor.
After South Korean midfielder Ji-Sung Park, starting his first game since suffering a knee injury last March, had delivered a dangerous cross from the right, Ronaldo powered a header goalwards, but Northern Ireland international Taylor denied him by saving with his feet.
Ronaldo, Nani and Tevez continued to tear the Birmingham defence apart, but Taylor's defiance grew, with the veteran keeper pulling off further impressive saves to keep the scoreline at 1-0.
Taylor's resistance boosted the confidence of his team-mates, who launched a spirited assault in the latter stages as they sought a shock equaliser.
Garry O'Connor and substitute Mikael Forssell worried United with near misses, but Ferguson's team did enough to see out the game and collect the three points.