Arsenal now have four games in hand and are only seven points adrift of a United side whose dejection at failing to win will be compounded because Liverpool were handicapped by playing with only 10 men for more than half the match.
Michael Owen equalised Ronny Johnsen's goal and then was sent off for two bookable offences, the second a dreadful late lunge into Johnsen's ankle. The Norwegian central defender took no further part and the game also petered out into a result that will satisfy neither side.
United's win at Blackburn on Monday had set the parameters for this match, in ways more than points. Alex Ferguson, the United manager, had been displeased about his team's performance, particularly in the first half and he gave vent in yesterday's programme. "I think our supporters have the right to expect to see us at least fight like champions. We let them down."
Scathing that may have been, but the United manager had seen enough in a second-half display that converted a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 win to stick with his team. That meant no place in the starting line-up for Teddy Sheringham, whose star seems to be in the descendent.
In the Liverpool side there was Paul Ince, who beforehand had pleaded that his record in his Old Trafford years demanded respect from the United supporters. Some hope. At the first mention of his name the ground exploded into an orgy of derision. Thanks for past services, Paul.
Ince's response was a crunching tackle on David Beckham to propel Liverpool forward, although it was United who almost took the lead after a minute. Dominic Matteo was sold short by a pass, had the ball flicked from his feet by Ryan Giggs and suddenly the visiting rearguard had been stripped bare.
Giggs burst through only to have his shot blocked by the advancing Brad Friedel. Still the danger had not gone, the rebound falling to Paul Scholes, whose shot beat the Liverpool goalkeeper's race back to goal but was cleared off the line by Phil Babb.
United had been halted then, but it was a temporary block because they took the lead after 11 minutes. This time last season Liverpool had been unpicked at Anfield largely due to their inability to deal with corners and they succumbed again.
They could not say they were not given a warning either, because the build-up to the goal had included a corner at which Nicky Butt had a free header at the far post. Liverpool were let off then at the expense of another corner, but when David Beckham arched another cross Johnsen was similarly neglected and he headed powerfully past Friedel.
Within two minutes Liverpool almost made amends thanks to Owen. Earlier in the day no less a figure than Pele had sung the praises of the 18-year- old striker, anticipating an exciting World Cup for him. If you are good enough you are old enough had been the Brazilian's message and Owen underlined that with a glorious piece of skill.
There seemed little hope for him as he began running at Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin on the right flank, but he skipped by them and then pulled the ball back for Steve McManaman. A gaping hole had been ripped in the United defence that was only filled by Gary Neville, throwing his body in front of McManaman's shot.
Gary Neville had a volley just wide for United and then Peter Schmeichel tipped a shot from Ince round a post. Liverpool gradually gained parity in terms of chances and got there in terms of goals after 35 minutes.
McManaman wantonly missed an opportunity after Danny Murphy's astute pass had split the United defence, but before Liverpool could rue that opportunity they were presented with another thanks to a mix-up between Gary Pallister and Schmeichel. Either could have reached an innocent-looking pass but both left it to the other and Owen nipped in between them, beating the United goalkeeper with an impudent chip.
It was Owen's last beneficial act because within five minutes he was sent off. The striker had already been booked for a lunge at Schmeichel and when he was late again on Johnsen the referee had little option but to dismiss him.
Down to 10 men, circumstance forced Liverpool to defend what they had and the second half became a game of patience in which United's greater share of possession was countered by Liverpool's readiness to strike on the break.
It was a question of who would slip first and it was almost United after 59 minutes when two reckless tackles by David May and Pallister freed Oyvind Leonhardsen. His shot was low to Schmeichel's right, but the goalkeeper was able to tip it round the post.
At the other end Gary Neville and Butt had shots that flew close to the Liverpool posts. However, it was probably an indication of United's laboured approach work that Sheringham was introduced just after the hour. The last throw of the dice.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville (Sheringham, 65), Johnsen (May, 43), Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, P Neville, Giggs (Thornley, 38); Scholes; Cole. Substitutes not used: Berg, Van der Gouw (gk).
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Jones, Matteo, Babb, Harkness; McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Leonhardsen; Murphy (Berger, 73); Owen. Substitutes not used: Kvarme, Thomas, Carragher, James (gk).
Referee: G Poll (Tring).Reuse content