Reigning champions Manchester United failed to capitalise on slip-ups from their English Premier League title rivals as they were held to a goalless draw away to Tottenham Hotspur Saturday. United were perfectly placed to close the gap on Liverpool and Chelsea after the Merseysiders dropped points to Hull earlier in the day, but they were frustrated at every turn by a dogged and deserving Spurs side at White Hart Lane.
It meant the reigning champions fly to Japan on Sunday morning for FIFA's Club World Cup still six points adrift of Liverpool in third place. The gap could be nine by the time they return, while Chelsea could leapfrog Liverpool into top spot with victory over West Ham in Sunday's London derby.
There was also no happy return to White Hart Lane for former Tottenham striker Dimitar Berbatov, travelling back here for the first time since his contentious pre-season move to Old Trafford. Spurs fans are not exactly renowned for their generosity towards old boys as Sol Campbell knows only too well. While Berbatov's departure did not cause the same rancour as Campbell's to Arsenal, there was still a spiteful air to proceedings. Berbatov's name was roundly booed before kick-off and every time he ventured near the touchline, he was greeted with a volley of venom. And at half-time he was even the butt of jokes from an on-pitch stand-up comedian. The Bulgarian did not seem to care and reacted to every jeer with characteristic insouciance.
Besides, United had more important matters weighing on their minds, namely capitalising on Liverpool leaking points earlier in the day and narrowing the gap at the top of the table. Two months ago, United would have been confident of doing just that.
Back then, Spurs were heading for the drop but the arrival of former Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp has instilled a backbone into the Londoners and, far from coasting to victory, this promised to be an afternoon to stretch United to the limit.
David Bentley drew an early gasp from the home crowd, unleashing a 30-yard volley that was palmed aside by United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. Aaron Lennon's brilliant slaloming run in the 28th minute almost produced a goal. The England winger drifted past a series of tackles, cut in from the right and drove low at the near post, forcing a smart save from van der Sar.
As the interval approached Spurs cranked up the pressure. Luka Modric headed over the crossbarfrom Didier Zokora's cross while Roman Pavlyuchenko blocked Tom Huddlestone's goal-bound piledriver. United emerged for the second half with far more spring in their step.
Even Berbatov looked energised and within moments he had embarked on a thrilling run from his own half. He ghosted past Vedran Corluka and was ready to shoot when Michael Dawson snaked out a foot and nicked the ball from his toe. United slowly took a choke-hold on the game and Sir Alex Ferguson signalled his intent by dispatching Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs from the bench to add some attacking pep. It almost paid off immediately, with Giggs's corner met by Rio Ferdinand, only for the header to zip just over.
Spurs were starting to creak. Another corner in the 76th minute caused havoc and former Tottenham midfielder Michael Carrick should have done better than drive straight at goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes. He had the final word. First Gomes produced a spectacular stop from Park Ji-Sung's firecracker, which was arrowing towards the top corner before he tipped it over. In injury-time the Brazilian somehow reached Giggs's curling free-kick and touched the ball onto the bar.