Liverpool and Manchester United could only play out a goalless draw at Anfield as a game billed as a title race marker failed to provide a finish and left questions lingering about both sides.
Five days after knocking the champions off their Premier League perch with victory at Burnley, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were hoping to further assert heavyweight title credentials at the home of their fiercest foes.
In this truest test, the hosts’ long unbeaten league run on Merseyside never looked under real threat until late on, when Alisson made two vital saves to deny Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba from close range.
But Liverpool, in Jurgen Klopp’s 200th Premier League game, found the breakthrough elusive themselves during a contest in which they dominated the ball for long spells but struggled for attacking fluidity, and have now failed to score for a third Premier League game in a row.
Manchester United stay three points clear of Liverpool, whom they meet again in the FA Cup on next Sunday, at the top of the table, with Leicester – a point above the Reds – between them.
But this was a result that will instead offer encouragement to Manchester City – who will close the gap if they beat Crystal Palace later on Sunday – as well as to Tottenham and Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Hotly-anticipated showdown – but no goals
Anfield’s anthem echoed poignantly around an empty stadium, its late hitmaker Gerry Marsden remembered before kick-off. Gary Neville had expected Liverpool to “come out like animals” after the sting of defeat to Southampton but their play was quietly controlled in a cagey start, Andy Robertson on the end of two patient moves but twice off target.
United had offered an early glimpse of their counter-attacking threat down the left but the game’s midfield pattern soon became clear, Fred and Scott McTominay prised apart as Thiago probed.
Roberto Firmino cut inside ominously, only to be thwarted by Victor Lindelof, while Harry Maguire put his body in the way of shots from Xherdan Shaqiri and Gini Wijnaldum with Liverpool further encouraged and well in command yet still to have a shot on target as the half-hour mark came.
Bruno Fernandes pulled his shirt over his head in frustration as a free-kick curled just wide of Alisson’s post and though Firmino spurned another opportunity after Mohamed Salah broke clear, United sensed a foothold as more Liverpool attacks came and went without reward.
Jamie Carragher called for “more quality” from Liverpool’s frontline but a laboured feel remained as players for so long so potent took an extra touch or unnecessary pass, one delivery of real menace from Robertson just before the hour was cut out by Maguire and then Salah dithered in the box before firing wide.
A fine Fabinho block had denied Fernandes not long before but Solskjaer was emboldened enough by the scoreline to send on Edinson Cavani.
Thiago forced a crucial stop from David de Gea late on but Alisson was also called into action to thwart Fernandes and then Pogba’s blast from close range as Solskjaer’s United finished a disappointing game strongly.
Liverpool host Burnley in an 8pm kick-off on Thursday evening, live on Sky Sports Premier League, before going to Manchester United in the FA Cup at 5pm on Sunday.
Before that FA Cup reunion with the Reds, Manchester United travel to Fulham in the Premier League at 8.15pm on Wednesday.