Manchester City's draw at Stoke on Saturday was a second boost for Manchester United in as many weeks. Only 13 days previously they usurped their neighbours to take top spot in the Premier League after a win against West Brom as City lost to Swansea. Now they can stretch the gap to three points. City are top by virtue of their goal difference being superior than United's, but the weekend point felt like a defeat - especially at this stage of the season.
The club's football development executive Patrick Vieira asserted last week that the return of Paul Scholes at Old Trafford showed "weakness", which enabled Ferguson to ridicule the Frenchman's comments after Carlos Tevez returned following a "five month holiday" in Argentina.
Inexperienced at this level, City have dropped five points from nine to hand United the initiative. The Reds' opponents tonight, Fulham, have not won at Old Trafford since 2003, when goals from Lee Clark, Steed Malbranque and Junichi Inamoto stunned the home crowd. Diego Forlan equalised for an off-colour United, but the result still flattered them.
Fulham forward Clint Dempsey looks ahead to the game:
Yet Fulham haven't scored at Old Trafford since 2006, when a Rio Ferdinand own goal beat Edwin van der Sar in a 5-1 Reds win. The Whites' record against United at home in the past few seasons has been impressive: two wins, one draw and one defeat, but they're form on the road continues to resemble the hapless showings during Roy Hodgson's otherwise successful reign.
Martin Jol, who rejected the opportunity to become Ferguson's assistant eight years ago, has never beaten the Reds either in charge of Tottenham or with the Cottagers. He is however moulding an exciting, maverick Fulham side brimming with attacking flair.
Moussa Dembele, Bryan Ruiz, Clint Dempsey and Pavel Pogrebnyak make for a formidable quartet and United - despite keeping two consecutive clean sheets - have been prone to some calamitous defensive lapses this season.
United thrash Fulham at Craven Cottage in December:
So will the aforementioned quartet go down in Fulham lore alongside messrs Clark, Malbranque and Inamoto, or is another inevitable defeat in M16 on the agenda? Here are tonight's key battles:
Jonny Evans v Pavel Pogrebnyak
Russian Pogrebnyak has made a stunning start in the Premier League after a barren spell in the Bundesliga. Five goals in five games for the on-loan striker has ensured that Fulham are not missing Bobby Zamora, however he has not scored in his last two games - 1-0 and 3-0 defeats to Aston Villa and Swansea.
Evans is one of United's most improved players this campaign and even broke his scoring duck against Wolves eight days ago on his 119th appearance. He often struggles against physical target men however, and even revealed in an interview last year that Rob Hulse was his toughest opponent. Ironically, he has excelled against the Premier League's best strikers and has improved his physical resilience, but Pogrebnyak - strong but skilful - will put his endurance to the test again. Ferguson may even task Rio Ferdinand to deal with Fulham's number seven.
Cristiano Ronaldo scores a memorable and pivotal winner in 2007:
Paul Scholes v Mahamadou Diarra
Diarra, along with Michael Essien, was courted by Ferguson when he was making waves at Lyon. The Scot even watched the Mali international play for the French side at AC Milan in 2006, but in the mid-noughties Real Madrid and Roman Abramovich's Chelsea could blow even a pre-Glazer United out of the water without breaking sweat. Tonight Diarra returns to the stage he has played on once before and scored at. He cancelled out Gary Neville's opener in a Champions League group stage match in 2004, with United eventually winning 2-1 courtesy of a Ruud van Nistelrooy header.
The 30-year-old was withdrawn against Swansea in his first start as he struggled to nullify the Welsh team's pass master Leon Britton, and his task is even more unenviable this evening. Scholes has been superb despite the embarrassment of United needing him at 37-years-old, and they have won all but one league game he has featured in since his comeback in January. And even that was when they were 3-0 down at Chelsea, as he emerged from the bench to help them to a 3-3 draw.
Michael Carrick v Clint Dempsey
Although not strictly a defensive midfielder, Carrick usually operates deep in the middle third of the pitch, while Scholes has surged forward so often he belies his late 30's age. Disciplined if not combative, the 30-year-old's regimented positioning will be vital in curbing Dempsey, who has emerged as one of the league's best attackers.
The American has hit an eye-opening 18 goals this campaign, including a winner against Liverpool and an equaliser against Chelsea in December. He begins games on the wing but invariably interchanges with Ruiz and/or Dembele, and such is the fluidity of Fulham's attack when in-sync, Carrick may have to call upon Scholes to muck in with the donkey work tonight.