After starting the week with a sparkling 64, the Northern Irishman needed a birdie on Saturday morning to sign for a level par 72 as the delayed second round was completed, and he was three shots off the lead after 36 holes at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
But the 31-year-old showed much of the class that has made him a four time Major Championship winner in round three, carding an eagle and five birdies to move to 13 under, one shot clear of Tyrrell Hatton, who carded a 71, and two ahead of another Englishman in Tommy Fleetwood.
McIlroy has three Race to Dubai titles and three World Golf Championships to go with those four Majors, but a win on Sunday would see him add his name to an illustrious list of Rolex Series winners.
It would also be a first win at an event where he has been runner up four times, with three thirds and just one finish outside the top 11 in ten previous appearances.
The only event McIlroy has played more times and not won is the Masters Tournament, and a victory would be his 15th on the European Tour, matching Ryder Cup Captains Thomas Bjørn and Padraig Harrington.
"I can't go into tomorrow thinking it's my turn," he said when asked about his record in Abu Dhabi. "I want to make it my turn. I have to go out there and continue to hit the ball like I hit it on the back nine tonight. If I can do that and give myself plenty of chances, I'll have a real chance.
"It's so blustery and it's a different type of golf than we're used to playing here in Abu Dhabi where there's usually not much wind. You feel like you have a chance on every hole. There's like a little more scrambling involved and longer putts.
"So I thought I did well today. Obviously had that big stroke of luck on 10, the ball hitting the pin and going in. Apart from that, I played well. I drove it much better on the back nine and I hit it much better on the back nine, so I was really encouraged with that."
Hatton held the 36 hole lead but dropped a shot after finding sand off the fifth tee and had McIlroy for company when the former World Number One played a brilliant shot from a fairway bunker to set up a four foot birdie on the third and added another from 15 feet on the fifth.
Hatton played a stunning approach into the sixth to get his nose back in front but found a nasty lie in a bunker to give the shot back on the next, where McIlroy also dropped a shot after missing the green.
A 12 foot left to righter on the eighth had McIlroy back in a share of the lead but Fleetwood would soon leapfrog his way to the top of the leaderboard.
The two time champion at this event holed from 16 feet on the fourth, 20 feet on the eighth and then made a two putt birdie on the par five tenth.
A 25 footer on the 11th had him in a share of the lead and when he holed from 45 feet on the next, he was the man to catch.
But it did not take McIlroy long to catch him as he spectacularly holed out at the tenth for an eagle to jump to 12 under.
Hatton made his birdie on the par five and McIlroy dropped a shot after failing to get up and down on the 12th but he hit a beautiful tee shot into the par three 15th and then put his approach to tap-in range at the next to lead by two.
Hatton holed a 40 footer on the 17th to trim that advantage before both men parred the last, with Fleetwood bogeying the 15th but picking the shot back up on the 18th in a second consecutive 67.
Lipsky started his round with three birdies but could only add three more to go with two bogeys, while Warren made five gains with a single dropped shot, and Cabrera Bello made three birdies and four bogeys in a 71.
Scrivener made two gains and registered a single dropped shot to sit a stroke ahead of a group of eight players six shots off the lead.