A Wednesday which started with Leicester City top and was winding down with Manchester City on the cusp of ending a day in first-place for the first time this season. But a stunning Paul Pogba strike lifted Manchester United back to the summit, a goal worthy of deciding any game, appropriate for reaffirming high status.
This was far from dominant wrestling back of the throne, nor a blazing shoot-em-up to let the rest know who’s boss. They had to grind for a 2-1 win against a Fulham side now eight games without a win and “comfortably” 18th. But for some star quality, they might have emerged with a point.
A deep clearance that touched the black of the west London night sky fell onto the tip of Pogba’s right foot. With two deft shuffles, he was away from those around him, with a sight of goal. His left foot whipped with the elegance of a pirouetting ballet dancer, a contrast to the thud upon contact and the shaking off the goal’s frame as the ball punched in at the far corner.
Though not at their best, this was United doing what they have done best this campaign. For the seventh time, they have fallen behind and come away with a win. They remain the only unbeaten side away from home – 26 points and counting – with the most goals (24). Not to mention they have equalled a top-flight record of 17 games without defeat on the road, set between December 1998 and September 1999.
The feeling off the back of Sunday’s draw at Anfield was that United pulled their punches. Guilty of playing “Liverpool Football Club” rather a team struggling to be the best of themselves, with a defence of midfielders. Too tentative to capitalise on the evident flaws in front of them.
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was not going to make the same mistake again. Edinson Cavani started up, Mason Greenwood came in to offer a left-footed presence from the right wing. Most notably, Pogba dropped into the midfield base with Fred, behind Bruno Fernandes. Against a Fulham side that like to play, and leave spaces to exploit as a result, having two ball-players through the middle made a lot of sense.
But the downside of breaking off a piece of defence shielding was exposed after just five minutes when Fulham opened the scoring. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is not one to ask for permission at the best of times, but obliged space, he threaded a simple pass beyond the United back four to Lookman. The 23-year old had enough time to check over his right shoulder for a flag and over his left shoulder for support before keeping his head down to thrash a low effort into the far corner for his third goal of the season.
The lead would only last 16 minutes, but in that time Fulham were able to get a read on just how disjointed the visitors were. Passes were going astray as United tried to rush their forward movements. The right flank offered little by way of threat or solidity from those in red.
The equaliser itself arrived through Fernandes’s bloody-mindedness. Moments after he struck the foot of the post from outside the box, the Portuguese talisman was out on the left, crossing into the box for Cavani. That the ball reached the striker was a black mark against Alphonse Areola, who got to Fernandes’ cross first but fumbled in front of the one player on the pitch who has made it his business to thrive on such mistakes.
The second-half followed a similar pattern, only this time Lookman struck straight at David de Gea when presented a chance in almost the exact position in the box for his goal. Though there were a handful more breaks for Fulham, an inability to stitch it all together and United’s propensity to pull something out of nothing felt like two universal forces destined to collide.
And so they did midway through the second period. Pogba flicked a switch and decided this nonsense had to stop. The right foot did the brunt of the work: the touch from the heavens, two more to best the defenders in his vicinity and create an angle for the left foot to wrap around the ball and squeeze it between the shrinking space of the far post and a sprawling Areola.
It should have been 3-1 around 60 seconds later. A cross from Fernandes on the right was met by Cavani from around six yards out, only for Areola to claw the effort away from danger.
A Fulham leveller threatened but never arrived. Ruben Loftus-Cheek spurned two efforts in the box, both ending up in the stands behind the United goal. There was further agony when a header from second-half substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic took a deflection off Aaron Wan-Bissaka, wrong-footing de Gea but also falling just wide of the near post.
On another day, maybe the cards would have fallen Scott Parker’s way. Instead, here was another defeat he can argue was out of keeping with how his side performed. But for all their good intentions, they remain in the mire of a relegation battle.