The same injury that claimed David Beckham and Gary Neville more than three years ago has struck United's gladiatorial 33-year-old captain, kicked by Luis Garcia, the butterfly of Liverpool's midfield, and now out of Sir Alex Ferguson's plans for two months. Keane had just returned from a hamstring problem and his latest affliction only serves to force United into further contemplation of that grim inevitability of having, one day, to replace the Irishman for good.
Keane unwound the captain's armband from his sleeve and hobbled to the bench with 88 minutes gone and he, like many others at Anfield, will have wondered for whom this outcome represented a good result. Certainly Jose Mourinho, who will have watched with some satisfaction as two of his Chelsea team's most serious rivals circled around each other but never quite dared to abandon the inherently defensive profile of their line-ups and stake everything on victory.
Ferguson brushed aside the suggestion that the champions were the only winners - "It's far too early to say that," he said - although the afternoon was a distillation of so many of the problems that have affected this Premiership season. The first goalless draw between these two sides since 1991, it was a match that featured so little risk, so precious few chances, that Anfield's golden goal competition had to be settled on the timing of the first corner.
The exchanges between the two sets of supporters were one of the few reminders of the visceral loathing that exists between these two mighty football institutions, and the chants of "Wimbledon" that came on the hour from the away end were a succinct appraisal of Liverpool's long-ball approach. They often looked for Peter Crouch, lurking at the back post, and their best chance was Steven Gerrard's shot on 67 minutes that Edwin van der Sar tipped away.
The Kop was far from bashful in making it clear to their visitors that May's European Cup final victory was their fifth success in that competition, and the most forceful reminder of that was the banner that read "Look Alex, back on our f****** perch". A response to Ferguson's famous proclamation that the removal of Liverpool from that very perch was the greatest achievement of his career - although now the task of returning to it may prove quite a struggle. Seven points behind Chelsea with one match in hand, he is now missing seven senior players through injury, including Keane, Gabriel Heinze and Neville.
"I don't think that games like this will be easy for Chelsea," Ferguson said, and he conceded that the occasion might even have proved "too intense" and "too important" for his players to relax sufficiently.
"I still think we had enough of the ball to win it and we showed good professionalism and composure - we just lacked a cutting edge," he said.
In Rooney, that cutting edge has been, of late, double-bladed, but the 19-year-old seemed a little more subdued on his return to a stadium where his past allegiance to Everton and his new loyalty to United give the locals two reasons to despise him. He was not given a single chance on goal although a tackle on him by Gerrard, which was not penalised, had Ferguson stomping around the technical area in fury.
United's best chance came a minute before the interval when Rio Ferdinand played a through ball that turned Liverpool's defence and Ruud van Nistelrooy, forced out wide, attempted a chip over the goalkeeper Jose Reina that rested on the roof of the net.
At left-back, Stephen Warnock's stewarding of Cristiano Ronaldo was as impressive as any other Premiership left-back - save Ashley Cole - has managed.
Warnock will have strengthened his case for England with Sven Goran Eriksson in the stand, although it would be difficult to say the same for Crouch who was not able to improve on last week's first half against Real Betis.
He was grabbed by the collar once by Ferdinand for what the United player perceived to be a dive, and his contribution was better appreciated when it was compared to that of Djibril Cissé, who came on for him after 79 minutes and was almost exclusively dreadful.
Benitez, as he is prone to do, searched out the "positive side" of this stalemate, pointing out that last season Liverpool had lost twice to United. "Now we play against the top three and we play at their level," he said. "For me that means that we are a step higher."
The truth, however, is that Chelsea are occupying a high ground much further beyond the plateau that Benitez's side have scrambled up to join United on.
There are 12 points between Liverpool and Chelsea, although Benitez's side have two games in hand over the side they face in the Champions' League next week and again at Anfield a week on Sunday. Lose the second of those two games and they might well start to read the last rites on the Premiership's title race. Keane can only hope that, two months from now, Chelsea are not too far away.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Warnock (Traoré, 84); Sinama-Pongolle (Sissoko, 70), Alonso, Gerrard, Riise; Garcia; Crouch (Cissé, 79).
Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Josemi.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Richardson; Rooney (Fletcher, 88), Scholes, Keane (Giggs, 88), Smith, Ronaldo (Park, 90); Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Bardsley.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Booked: Liverpool Carragher, Traoré; Manchester United Scholes, Keane.
Man of the match: Carragher.
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