Liverpool's push for a first league title in 19 years suffered a frustrating setback on Saturday as Rafael Benitez's side were held to a goalless draw at struggling top-flight newcomers Stoke.
Liverpool came agonisingly close to victory when captain Steven Gerrard clipped a shot against the outside of the post in stoppage time.
But Stoke also had their chances in an evenly contested match and were worthy of a point that lifted them out of the relegation zone for at least 24 hours.
The draw left Liverpool four points clear of Chelsea at the top, where they will remain regardless of the outcome of the Londoners' trip to Manchester United on Sunday.
But Benitez will regard this as an opportunity wasted at the end of a week in which he had claimed that champions United were running scared in the face of his side's challenge and launched a scathing personal attack on the conduct of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Against that background, United boss Ferguson will have enjoyed watching Liverpool's disjointed performance in the knowledge that, if his side beat Chelsea and win their two games in hand, the champions will go top of the table.
Benitez however insisted he was right to speak out and rejected suggestions that his outburst had put his players under unnecessary additional pressure.
"If you are at the top of the table it is always important to win," he said. "Ferguson has been talking about Liverpool a lot, so I thought it was the right moment. I was thinking about defending my team and that is enough.
"We are still top of the table and we are in a very good position."
Elsewhere on Saturday, Aston Villa took another step towards entering the exclusive Champions League club with a hard-fought derby win over Midlands rivals West Brom.
Martin O'Neill's side held out under intense late pressure for a 2-1 win over the Premier League's bottom club that preserved their three-point cushion over Arsenal, who left it late before finally overcoming Bolton 1-0 at the Emirates.
The Gunners looked in serious danger of losing more ground on Villa as they laboured to break down their guests. Robin van Persie saw a 70th-minute shot come back off the post midway before setting up substitute Nicklas Bendtner for a winner that came with barely five minutes left.
Relieved Gunners boss Arsene Wenger admitted Bendtner's goal could come to look very important by the end of the season.
"We are already swimming enough against the stream not to drop points against Bolton," the Frenchman said. "We were solid defensively and now we have won 1-0 three times, which is a good basis."
At Villa Park, centreback Curtis Davies headed Villa into the lead against his former club and the Baggies found themselves two goals down at half-time following a horrendous blunder by goalkeeper Scott Carson.
The former England goalkeeper was credited with an own goal after allowing Gabriel Agbonlahor shot to squeeze past him from a tight angle.
James Morrison pulled a goal back for West Brom early in the second half but Villa, now unbeaten in nine matches, held on for a fifth win in six games, much to the relief of O'Neill.
"They were a bit unlucky to be 2-0 down and after they scored they put us under a lot of pressure," the Villa boss admitted.
Hull's slide down the table gathered pace as Phil Brown's side went down to a 2-0 defeat by Everton at Goodison Park.
Marouane Fellaini headed in a Leighton Baines cross to put David Moyes's side ahead, possibly from an offside position, and the home side were cruising by half-time following one of Mikel Arteta's trademark free-kicks.
Middlesbrough and Sunderland shared the spoils in a northeast derby that both sides could ill-afford to lose.
Stewart Downing, the England winger who has asked for a transfer, demonstrated why he is a target for Tottenham with the pass that enabled Brazilian striker Afonso Alves to put Boro ahead just before half-time.
But Trinidad and Tobago striker Kenwyne Jones rescued a deserved point for the visitors with an equaliser eight minutes from time.
Newcastle's meeting with West Ham also ended in a stalemate although it was a far more entertaining affair.
Michael Owen opened the scoring for Newcastle but the former England striker's effort was cancelled out before half-time.
A fine pass from Scott Parker sent Craig Bellamy clear and the former Newcastle forward finished coolly.
Carlton Cole then put the visitors ahead ten minutes after the restart but young forward Andrew Carroll rescued a point for the Magpies with his first goal for the club, 12 minutes from time.
The unusually cold weather in the south of England resulted in both the Portsmouth v Manchester City and Fulham v Blackburn matches being postponed.
Source: AFP European Edition