'Liverpool draw gives Man Utd plenty to build on in title bid'

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Manchester United players look dejected at Anfield in January last year
Manchester United players looked dejected at Anfield in January last year, but they have closed the gap significantly in just 12 months

Manchester United's last visit to Liverpool almost a year ago to the day saw them beat a miserable retreat from Anfield after a loss that left them 30 points adrift of the team who would be champions.

It was a 2-0 defeat but Manchester United were lucky to escape further embarrassment and looked light years adrift of Liverpool - who even had a game in hand at that point - when measured in performance and progression.

The notion that they could contemplate winning the Premier League any time soon, or even figure in the conversation, was the stuff of fantasy.

This 0-0 draw, 12 months on, meant United remained top of the table, three points ahead of Liverpool at the final whistle.

Premer League table from 19 January 2020
Manchester United were 30 points adrift of Liverpool after the two sides met at Anfield in the Premier League last season

United remain a strange side, one almost struggling for its full identity, but one glance at this performance and the statistics placed alongside it show that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can be pleased with the year's progress in the Premier League context.

Yes, there were contributing factors but simply the sight of United at the top and leaving Anfield with no damage inflicted will bolster confidence and self-belief for the defining months ahead.

Those factors were that they did not have to deal with a full Anfield that normally reserves its greatest hostility for any visitors from Old Trafford. Liverpool are feeling the injuries that have hit them this season and a team that could not stop scoring has suddenly hit its worst league streak since February and March 2005, having failed to score in their past three games.

Klopp praises Liverpool performance despite draw

Indeed, viewed like this you could almost rate this as a missed opportunity for United and Solskjaer, especially as Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson was the hero with two vital second-half saves from Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba as they ended the game much stronger and looking far more likely to win.

In the current reckoning, however, top of the table after a visit to Liverpool will be an outcome Solksjaer will accept. He would certainly have taken it 12 months ago after this same fixture.

From a Manchester United perspective, the signing of Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon a few days after that timid Anfield reverse has also shown signs of being a game changer in transforming Solskjaer's side from also-rans to potential contenders so he can certainly point to development, at least in the league.

Solskjaer and his players were disappointed not to have claimed those three points at the final whistle, a realistic reflection on events and a sign that United are moving in the right direction.

There are still questions to be answered, setting aside their dismal exit from the Champions League at the group stage, but it is hard to be overcritical of a team at the top of the table.

United initially looked set up not to lose - either that or they did not have the courage of their convictions - as Liverpool established a first-half stranglehold, albeit one that did not lead to anything substantial.

As the game wore on, the United that have not lost for 16 Premier League games away from Old Trafford emerged from its shell and Pogba was suitably mortified when he saw his close-range effort blocked by the brilliant Alisson late on.

United have a track record of losing games that matter under Solskjaer - four semi-final defeats act as testimony to that - so a win here would have been a massive statement.

It did not come and those questions will remain until United can prove they are winners but there is plenty for Solskjaer to build on in this most unpredictable of seasons.

And it was achieved with the normally influential Fernandes off his game, despite almost scoring twice. The radar was not right and when he was removed in the closing minutes it was not well received by the Portuguese talisman.

United's heroes were elsewhere in the shape of captain Harry Maguire and left-back Luke Shaw, the latter absolutely outstanding and a comfortable winner of his personal battle with Mohamed Salah.

The table confirms that United have a shot at winning the title this season. They must grasp this opportunity and show greater ambition and boldness than they did for spells here.

As for Liverpool, they are currently a long way from the team that cut a swathe through the Premier League to claim their first title in 30 years last season.

Much of the debate around Liverpool's injury problems has understandably centred around defenders Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk. Those absences, along with Joel Matip here, has left important midfield influences Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson manning the barricades at the back.

Solskjaer disappointed at 'missed opportunity' to win at Anfield

The injury that is currently seeming to cause the most damage, however, is to forward Diogo Jota, who started his Liverpool career in a blaze of goals only to pick up a serious knee injury away to Midtjylland in a Champions League dead rubber in Denmark.

Jota looked an inspired £45m purchase from Wolverhampton Wanderers and how he has been missed as the golden trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Salah have hit a barren spell.

The Portuguese forward was providing Liverpool with an attacking 'X Factor' as well as an option to rest the big three.

Firmino was so poor here he was removed six minutes from time and replaced with Divock Origi, even though Liverpool desperately needed a goal. He could have not one word of complaint.

The decisive goal could not be found and there was an air of unfulfillment around both managers as they conducted their post-match inquests.

Manchester United will be happier - but just how happy this result should make them may only become clear in the weeks ahead.

What cannot be disputed is that Manchester United and Solskjaer are in a much better state than when their team coach pulled away into Anfield Road last January.

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