Manchester United can ensure that they will occupy top spot in the Premier League table at the halfway stage of their season when they take on Fulham at Craven Cottage on Wednesday night.
The Red Devils drew 0-0 with champions Liverpool on Sunday night to keep hold of first place, and they face a Fulham side without a Premier League win to their name since November.
Not for the first time this season, a hugely-anticipated and heavily-billed big game failed to live up to the hype on Sunday as Liverpool and Manchester United played out a largely dull and uneventful goalless draw at Anfield.
While the result arguably benefitted Manchester City more than either of the teams involved, Man United would have undoubtedly been the happier of the two sides on Merseyside as they hung on to top spot in the Premier League table and came through what on paper is their biggest test of the season relatively unscathed.
It is a sign of their changing mindset and ambition that they came away from Anfield with a tinge of disappointment too; a point at the home of the champions would have been gleefully accepted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had he been offered it before the match, but his side created the two biggest chances and, but for Alisson Becker in the Liverpool goal, could have become the first visiting team to win a league game at Anfield since April 2017.
Even more importantly, it could have lifted them six points clear of the champions and maintained the four-point gap to Manchester City and Leicester City, but as it stands those two teams are now only two points adrift.
Indeed, with both of them in action before Man United in midweek it could be that Solskjaer’s side arrive at Craven Cottage sitting third in the table, but the very fact that they are still in the mix – and could guarantee top spot after 19 games of their season with victory – must be taken as an unexpected positive for the 20-time champions.
Plenty of teams have led the way before falling away in what is developing into one of the most competitive Premier League seasons ever, and the challenge for Man United now is to stay on top.
Key to doing that will be to maintain their away form; the draw at Anfield means that Man United have now gone more than a year without losing a top-flight away game, and should they avoid defeat on Wednesday then they would equal their club-record of 17 consecutive Premier League games on the road without defeat.
This season alone Man United are the only team yet to lose on the road and have picked up the most points and scored the most goals on their travels, so they will make the trip to West London full of belief that they will extend what is now a 12-game unbeaten run in the league.
The Red Devils have won their last four top-flight away games against Fulham by an aggregate score of 12-1 and are unbeaten in their last eight top-flight meetings with promoted sides, scoring 25 goals in that time.
The odds seem stacked against Fulham, then, and even more so given that they are currently on a seven-game winless run which stretches back to the end of November.
That only tells half of the story, though; in that time Fulham have taken points off Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton, while their only defeats have been against Manchester City and Chelsea, the latter of which came on Saturday after they were forced to play the majority of that West London derby with 10 men.
Scott Parker may be justified in thinking that his side would have got something out of that game had they kept 11 men on the pitch, but discipline has been an issue this season, with Antonee Robinson’s red card the third they have picked up in the league so far in 2020-21 – no team has had more.
Goalscoring is also a growing concern; while Fulham have tightened things up at the back significantly as the season has progressed, conceding just three times in their last four outings, they have also only scored three times in their last seven top-flight games.
Indeed, the Cottagers have now drawn blanks in each of their last three home league games since earning a draw against Liverpool and could go four top-flight home games without finding the back of the net for the first time since December 1961.
The improvement at the back means that Fulham have been able to pick up regular points despite that, though, and while weekend wins for both Brighton & Hove Albion and West Bromwich Albion dealt another blow to their survival hopes, the gap to safety is still an entirely-assailable four points.
Fulham Premier League form: DDDDDL
Fulham form (all competitions): DDDWDL
Manchester United Premier League form: WDWWWD
Manchester United form (all competitions): WWLWWD