Record-breaking run glutton Steve Smith fell on 80 before England survived a dramatic four-over burst on day two of the fifth Ashes Test, emerging at stumps with a 78-run lead.
Marcus Harris handed Joe Denly a life on one when he put down a regulation catch in the final over at the Oval, which ended with Rory Burns successfully reviewing his lbw dismissal.
Burns also copped blows to the body and grille as England finished 0-9, having rolled Australia for 225 to claim a first-innings lead of 69 runs and no shortage of momentum in the series finale.
Smith threatened to spare Australia batsmen's blushes for the umpteenth time in his career, having been summoned to the middle at 2-14 after Jofra Archer fired out both openers David Warner and Marcus Harris.
The former skipper steadied the innings, as was the case while helping himself to 293 runs as Australia retained the urn at Old Trafford.
Australia's best batsman since Don Bradman slowly but surely chipped away at England's lead after the hosts were all out for 294.
The remarkable right-hander then offered two reminders he is a mere mortal.
Smith was dropped on 66, when Sam Curran celebrated the prized scalp before realising Joe Root had fumbled the ball at first slip, then was trapped plumb lbw by Chris Woakes.
The top-ranked batsman's lowest score of the series, coupled with a lack of support outside Marnus Labuschagne's 48, has given England a golden opportunity to record a consolatory victory that would draw the series.
England's advantage would have been ever greater if not for a 37-run stand between Nathan Lyon and Peter Siddle.
Lyon was particularly aggressive in a quick-fire 25, smacking Woakes for a sweetly-timed six over square leg's head.
Archer struggled to hide his rage when a dropped catch from Jack Leach reprieved Lyon on 22, costing the express paceman a fifth wicket.
But Archer made a mess of Lyon's stumps with his next delivery at the offspinner then had Siddle out edging in the same over.
Archer finished with a haul of 6-62 from 23.5 overs, having also removed Labuschagne and Mitch Marsh.
Labuschagne batted on stoically after being struck on the forearm by a short ball by Archer, who trapped him lbw soon after.
Recalled allrounder Curran also helped England seize control of the match, firing out Tim Paine and Pat Cummins with consecutive deliveries.
Matthew Wade, welcomed to the crease with a barrage of barbs from England, was trapped lbw by Curran.
Smith, who has scored a third of Australia's runs this series despite missing three innings because of concussion, entered uncharted territory when he reached 50 with a six off Leach then again when he passed 75.
The world's top-ranked batsman now holds the overall record for most consecutive 50-plus scores against a single opposition, having rattled off 10 in the Ashes.
Smith also equalled West Indies great Everton Weekes mark of six consecutive Test innings of 75 runs or more.