Manchester United were unable to restore their six-point lead at the top of the table as they were stymied by Swansea's splendidly spirited resistance and held to a first draw of the season.

United scored early, through Patrice Evra, but Michu equalised with his 13th goal of the season and the Welsh team defended magnificently in the second half to emerge with a deserved point from a combative, thoroughly entertaining joust.

Draws rarely get much credit when it comes to discussing the matches of the season, but this one certainly merits consideration when such plaudits are tossed around. For Swansea, after successive defeats, this was the acid test, not just of their mettle but also for their admirable passing game. They passed with flying colours.

The Swans looked more like turkeys when they fell behind after a quarter of an hour, but they recovered well and took the fight to the league leaders, equalising before half-time, then defending by hook or by crook in a pell-mell second half with their goalkeeper Michel Vorm and his centre-halves, Ashley Williams and Chico Flores, all outstanding.

United had Nemanja Vidic back in their starting line-up for the first time in nearly a year, fully restored at last after a knee injury. His old partner in central defence, Rio Ferdinand, was rested in preparation for the hectic holiday programme, so Jonny Evans played alongside Vidic with another centre-half by trade, Phil Jones, in at right-back.

Swansea needed all the quality they could muster, and recalled the coveted Vorm in goal after two months out injured. They also beefed up their midfield by drafting in the muscular Kemy Agustien to augment the ball-winning department – a role he played to perfection.

United went ahead when Vorm saved a shot from Ashley Young at the expense of a corner. Robin van Persie took the kick on the right and Evra, six yards out, got the better of Ben Davies in heading home his third goal of the season. Swansea responded well to adversity, and were rewarded for their eager enterprise after 29 minutes, when David de Gea failed to hold a shot from Jonathan de Guzmán and Michu was left with no more than a tap-in.

They might have gone ahead before the interval, but a lovely interchange between Leon Britton and Wayne Routledge came to nothing for the want of a decent finish from the winger. United, too, had one more chance before the end of the first half, Vorm making a notable save from Wayne Rooney's volley from 12 yards.

There was a seasonal, pantomime moment when the referee was so intent on booking Dwight Tiendalli that he was oblivious to De Guzmán's presence and trod heavily on his feet, sending the Dutchman to the deck. He was withdrawn a few minutes later. Specsavers for Christmas, ref?

United sent on an extra striker, Javier Hernández, in pursuit of maximum points, and Van Persie clipped the crossbar with a reflex shot then, with the aid of a deflection, caught Vorm wrong-footed and happy to claw the ball away one handed. The force was with United now, Swansea defending in all-hands-to-the-pumps mode.

Tempers boiled over in the 75th minute when, with Van Persie helpless on the ground, Williams belted the ball into the back of his head from point-blank range, provoking a reaction from the Dutchman which sparked an unsightly melee. Both principals were booked, but for Sir Alex Ferguson to claim that Van Persie "could have been killed" and that Williams should be suspended was ludicrously over the top.

The referee's decision was spot-on. The consequent free-kick, from the 18-yard line, was taken by Rooney, who attempted to curl it around the defensive wall, only to be thwarted by Williams' block. Michael Laudrup was as keen as Ferguson to claim all three points and sent on two strikers, Luke Moore and Itay Shechter, in search of the winning goal.

This, though, is the Swans' achilles heel. Neither player is good enough at this level and with Michu preferring to play off the main striker, rather than as the leader of the line, Laudrup plans to go back to the Spanish market to reinforce his attack when the January transfer window opens. His target is believed Iago Aspas of Celta Vigo, who has a buy-out clause in his contract that makes him available for £8m.

United flurried towards the end, and on three occasions they came tantalisingly close to scoring the decisive goal. Michael Carrick headed against the bar from a Van Persie corner, Williams smothered a shot from the Dutch striker and finally Young's drive hit Davies on the line. United claimed the full-back had handled the ball, but in reality it hit his shoulder.

As might have been expected, the league leaders had the lion's share of possession, and of the chances, but Swansea were defiance personified and held out for a result which sends them into their Boxing Day fixture at Reading in buoyant mood, confident of climbing the table.

United are at home to Newcastle on Wednesday, and with a four-point lead at the top they remain favourites to wrest the title away from those "noisy neighbours". Merry Christmas? Not with Ferguson imagining death on the 18-yard line.