Sir Alex Ferguson believes Manchester United will have taken a significant step towards winning back the Premier League title if they are still top of the table on January 4. United, unbeaten in the league this season, are two points clear at the top and with a game in hand.
United manager Ferguson believes there is much more to come from his side, who have drawn six of their seven away matches and whose performances have faced plenty of criticism. And, having seen their run of three straight league titles brought to an end by Chelsea last season, he feels that this run of four games will be crucial to United's prospects.
"My aim is to be top of the league by January 4," Ferguson said. "If we're still top then, we've done well.
"Someone asked me 'are you surprised to be top of the league? I'm only surprised that people are surprised all the top teams are dropping points.
"They don't recognise how tough the league is now.
"It's a hectic period for us, though not as much as usual because of the two games that were postponed in December.
"Nonetheless, four games in the space of 10 days is a big job, though of course we could have more postponements yet."
One of United's below-par away displays was the goalless draw at Sunderland where Ferguson admits his men were lucky to escape with a point.
The Blacks Cats are unbeaten in the league at home this season and Ferguson believes a Sunderland side managed by Steve Bruce, one of his former United captains, are worthy of respect and cited their 3-0 win away to Chelsea last month as evidence of their quality.
"It (the Sunderland match) was the toughest game we've had away from home, I think. Their away form has not been great -- Steve has referred to that. "But I watched the game (at Chelsea) and they could have won by six or seven that day.
Ferguson, who recently became United's longest-serving manager having taken over in 1986, said: "I could point to maybe six perfect performances in all the time I've been here."