IT WAS easy to see why the Premiership title race has been developing into a canter for Manchester United. Quite apart from their own fleetness of foot, it seems they can always rely on the inability of their challengers to reduce significantly the distance between them.
For Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea read Liverpool. They came to Filbert Street yesterday with five consecutive league wins behind them and the chance to close the gap to six points in advance of United's tricky trip tomorrow to Southampton - often a bogey team and ground for the leaders. Then it is Newcastle at Anfield on Tuesday and the possibility of Liverpool exerting a little pressure on United was beginning to glint in the eye of those who would like to see the champions-elect extended.
Instead, the gap between United and Liverpool, who despite their inadequacies still look the likeliest contenders long-term, is only down to eight points. And, ultimately, Liverpool were grateful for that small mercy after another tough encounter with a team whose direct style causes them so much discomfort.
"The lads are disappointed not to have got three points, which is a nice thing to say," said the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans. "But we must keep plugging away. We shouldn't throw the towel in. It's not going to be easy but United are catchable."
Not by Liverpool on this evidence. Initially they looked sure to score, with the confidence of their recent league run flowing through them and Steve McManaman enjoying Martin O'Neill's decision not to assign Pontus Kaamark as a marker as he had in City's 2-1 win at Anfield in August. Early on, neat interplay between Paul Ince and Steve Harkness ended with Robbie Fowler shooting wide when in space on the edge of the area.
Then they flattered and deceived. Only belatedly did they increase the tempo, Kasey Keller turning aside Fowler's chip after McManaman's strong run before, in the last minute, Oyvind Leonhardsen drove across the face of goal to an offside Fowler who should have sent the ball into the far corner of the net.
In between, Leicester again showed themselves dogged opposition. They have struggled recently after their good start to the season but will see it as a point gained in their quest for the 42 that should guarantee survival.
They should have got all the points, however. The lively Steve Guppy on the left sent in some wicked curling crosses to expose Liverpool's lack of a dominant defender, but Ian Marshall, Steve Walsh and Muzzy Izzett headed three of them over the bar. Matt Elliott also drove a low shot just wide in the second half.
In the end, Liverpool's reliance on individualism again inspired only frustration. The word pretender has a double meaning, and Liverpool, missing half a chance, are once more in danger of looking like great ones.