Premier League - Jones off the mark in United victory
Long spells of mediocrity, from the home side in particular, were largely punctured by injuries as Javier Hernandez suffered an apparently serious ankle blow and Shay Given was withdrawn with a hamstring problem in the first half, with Jermaine Jenas later joining them on the sidelines.
The only real glimpse of genuine quality in the contest came after 20 minutes when Phil Jones scored his first senior goal with a lovely finish from Nani's cross. It proved to be the critical moment in an instantly forgettable contest.
The result means United reclaim second place from Tottenham, who earlier won at home to Bolton, and remain five points shy of City. Villa, with just two wins in 13, are eighth but with concerns growing among supporters about the tactical and stylistic approach of manager Alex McLeish.
After a low-key start to proceedings at Villa Park, the game suffered a lengthy stoppage when Hernandez went over on his ankle. The striker required plenty of treatment and left the pitch on a stretcher and in considerable pain, adding to United's attacking problems with Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen both injured at present.
Rather than push Ashley Young into a central role, it was instead Nani who was asked to come inside when Antonio Valencia took to the pitch and the Portugal international quickly found himself at the centre of the action when firing a shot well off target.
With Villa offering little of note, it was left to United to take the initiative and Chris Smalling saw a smart shot on the turn blocked by Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock after Nemanja Vidic headed back across goal from a corner after 19 minutes.
Just 60 seconds later United were in front as they exploited some poor defending from the home side. Nani was afforded far too much space on the left and he had no problem dinking in a cross to Jones, who was left completely unmarked to produce an accomplished volleyed finish with his instep for his first senior goal.
With Villa apparently unable to string together a succession of passes, United went close to a second on 25 minutes. Dunne's mistake allowed Rooney to take possession and after he found Valencia, the winger crossed for Nani who saw his header saved by Given. It was then Valencia's turn to threaten as he collected possession 25 yards from goal and unleashed a fearsome effort that flew narrowly over the bar.
Villa's disappointing evening continued when they were forced into a change of their own after 38 minutes, with Given apparently suffering a hamstring strain to be replaced by Brad Guzan. The discontent of the home fans was audible around Villa Park when a poor first half, extended by eight additional minutes, finally came to an end.
McLeish was unable to coax much more out of his side in the second half as a rather dismal game continued in a similar vein. Rooney and Gabriel Agbonlahor had half-chances and those home supporters inside Villa Park were forced to wait until the 70th minute to see a chance of note from their team.
Agbonlahor won a corner when his shot was deflected up and over the bar and when Dunne flicked it on to the back post, substitute Emile Heskey should have done much better than nodding the ball off target.
The chance appeared to inject a bit of life into the match and after Young dragged a shot wide of the post following a nice run infield, James Collins threatened at the other end when his firm header from Dunne's hopeful ball into the box forced a smart reaction save from Anders Lindegaard.
Rooney threatened late on while substitute Danny Welbeck was correctly ruled offside when collecting a pass from the striker and rolling the ball past Guzan. It was an underwhelming conclusion to an underwhelming evening.