Australia took three wickets after tea to boost their fading hopes of winning the third Test, as England finished day three at Old Trafford on 294-7.
That is a first-innings deficit of 233 and with the tourists needing to win to keep their hopes alive of regaining the Ashes, an aggressive declaration from Australia looks in prospect on day four.
The highlight of a slow-burner of a day was a 23rd Test century from Kevin Pietersen, whose stand of 115 for the fifth wicket with Ian Bell (60) looked to have guided England to the verge of safety.
But Ryan Harris' inswinger accounted for Bell's off stump shortly after tea and Mitchell Starc prised out England's top-scorer lbw with a straight delivery to leave their old enemy still 34 runs short of avoiding the follow-on, if Michael Clarke considered enforcing it with bad weather threatened for Sunday and Monday.
In between those dismissals, Jonny Bairstow was tempted into a poor shot by a wide Starc delivery and Shane Watson picked up a neat catch at first slip.
Australia had earlier claimed the key wicket of Alastair Cook just before lunch to boost their hopes of forcing victory.
Jonathan Trott departed early in the day when Harris got one to bounce sufficiently off a length and hold its line for Trott to fence a catch low to Michael Clarke at second slip.
Trott had looked to be struggling for any fluency throughout his innings and made just five from 38 balls.
New batsman Pietersen made a nervy start, including a fretful push at a wide delivery from Harris' first ball - missed on its way through to the wicketkeeper.
Cook reached his near three-hour half-century from 138 balls by pushing Harris for two past mid off, having begun his patient vigil soon after tea on Friday. It was Cook's 31st fifty in 95 Tests.
But 13 minutes before lunch Cook was tempted into flicking at a Starc delivery heading down the leg side and Brad Haddin took a superb diving catch behind the stumps.
Bell and Pietersen remained unbeaten throughout the afternoon session, although Pietersen was fortunate to survive an lbw appeal from Watson on 62.
The England batsman was two yards down the track when he was struck, the appeal was turned down and Australia understandably decided not to review the decision.
Moments later TV replays revealed that Pietersen would have been given out by the DRS and when coach Darren Lehmann signalled as such from the balcony, the tourists' frustration was all too evident.
Pietersen went on to score his first Test century at Old Trafford, bringing up three figures by lifting Starc over backward point with an outrageous shot, but the bowler had his revenge as Pietersen fell for 113 from 206 deliveries.
The in-form Bell had departed an hour earlier, falling short of a fourth successive Ashes century to a superb delivery from Harris.
Matt Prior and Stuart Broad saw England through to the close and the pair will be keen to build a decisive partnership on Sunday morning, the first target avoiding any chance of being put straight back in.