London: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.
Friday'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. It was worth it to get three points."
Even after losing defender Andy Wilkinson in the 72nd to a second yellow card, Stoke kept troubling the Red Devils but could not respond to Tevez's goal. United played out the last few minutes by passing the ball deep inside its own half.
Robbie Keane scored twice to lead Liverpool to victory over a stubborn Bolton side and secure a Premier League win at Anfield for the first time in four games.
Albert Riera had put Liverpool ahead in the 26th before Keane's second-half goals.
Didier Drogba, who finally started up front alongside Nicolas Anelka, and Frank Lampard scored in the first half for Chelsea to take the Blues to 41 points -- albeit from two more games than United.
"We are delighted to have Didier back," Chelsea assistant manager Ray Wilkins said. "It is always nice to score early on and it was a classic center forward's goal: a powerful header.
"It is lovely to have Didier fully fit although we took him off in the second half because he got a kick on the thigh. He is an exceptional centre forward."
At Villa Park, Denilson and Abou Diaby looked to have sealed Arsenal's victory as they led 2-0 by the 49th in a pulsating match.
But Gareth Barry converted a penalty in the 65th before the defender Zat Knight struck in injury time to leave the Gunners 10 points behind leader Liverpool.
"I feel in the second half they were never really dangerous and yet we conceded two goals in the half where we were never really troubled," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
West Brom stayed last with 15 points, while West Ham climbed away from the relegation zone with a 4-1 win at Portsmouth. Craig Bellamy, who was subject to a bid by Tottenham on Wednesday, scored the Hammers' third and fourth goals.
Spurs stayed in 16th after a 0-0 draw against Fulham, which is now on its best ever Premier League run of eight unbeaten matches, while Manchester City climbed out of the relegation zone -- to be replaced by Stoke -- with a 5-1 win over Hull.
Any pressure on manager Mark Hughes following his team's bad run of form was largely alleviated when City went 4-0 up in 36 minutes. Felipe Caicedo and Robinho each scored twice before Stephen Ireland got City's final goal with eight minutes left after a sweeping passing move.
Also yesterday, Everton won 1-0 at Middlesbrough to take sixth place and Blackburn drew 0-0 at Sunderland.
Birmingham drew level with second-place Reading in the second-tier League Championship after winning 1-0 at Ipswich.
Reading drew 1-1 with Cardiff to move to 50 points, with Wolverhampton Wanderers seven points ahead after a 1-1 draw against Sheffield United.