Jaded Liverpool lack guile to open up solid United

Soccer Football - Premier League - Liverpool v Manchester United - Anfield, Liverpool, Britain - January 17, 2021 Liverpool's Alisson saves a shot from Manchester United's Marcus Rashford Pool via REUTERS/Michael Regan

LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) - There was a 33-point gap between champions Liverpool and Manchester United last season so a 0-0 draw at Anfield, which kept Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's visitors top of the table, represents a major shift in the North-West balance of power.

However, Sunday's encounter was as much about Liverpool's current problems as it was a demonstration of the maturing of Solskjaer's side into real Premier League title contenders as they maintained a three-point gap over their hosts.

It was the third straight game in which Liverpool have failed to score and the first time they have been kept goalless at Anfield in the Premier League since October 2018.

Credit for the clean sheet must, of course, be given to United's back-four, with Luke Shaw outstanding at left-back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka solid on the other flank and central defenders Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof comfortable throughout.

But plenty of times during the past two excellent seasons, Juergen Klopp's Liverpool side have played against solid and well-organised defences and still managed to open them up.

The early half-chances fell to Liverpool's Roberto Firmino but his efforts were weak and lacked conviction and the Brazilian looks to be badly in need of a rest.

Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, who struck 37 goals between them in last season's title run, barely troubled United keeper David De Gea on Sunday and also struggled to stretch the back line, with their movement far less effective than in the past.

The absence through injury of Diogo Jota also robbed Klopp of another option up front.

"There is no easy explanation (for the lack of goals) You always miss chances. You have to keep going and try to ignore the talk around it. Everyone wants to see goals. You cannot force it," said Klopp.

"It's football. These moments happen. You have moments where you can't explain why you score from all angles," he added.

Part of the problem may lay deeper in the team, with full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, so devastatingly influential last term, neutralised by United.

Injuries meant the midfield had to be reshuffled with Xherdan Shaqiri and Thiago Alcantara, both starting after lengthy spells on the sidelines, not providing the relentless pressing that has been the team's trademark.

As the game wore on, Liverpool's initial intensity dropped noticeably, an indication that perhaps they are feeling the pace of a congested fixture schedule.

Given the tightness at the top of the table, where five points separate the top six, the title may well be won by the team that can manage the load and have enough fuel in the tank for the run-in.

On the basis of recent weeks United look a better bet in terms of stamina but the race is still wide open, with Manchester City, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur also well placed for a push in the second half of the season.

However, it would be a fool that doubted Liverpool's ability to regroup and find the energy and momentum to pull clear of their rivals again in the remaining weeks.

"I would say the performance levels haven't been up to our standards in the past few week," said skipper Jordan Henderson, currently filling in as an emergency centre back.

"We just showed that we have got to keep going, work hard and improving. We will not stop now."

(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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