RICHARD DUNNE'S heroic defensive display saw Manchester City thwart Liverpool’s attempts to make up ground in the Barclays Premier League title race.
Dunne stood like an unshakeable tower as Rafael Benitez’s men controlled a one-sided north-west derby without getting the breakthrough they deserved.
Fernando Torres was barely in the game such was Dunne’s dominance of the Spaniard, with Harry Kewell, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun wasting the Reds’ best opportunities before Joe Hart denied Dirk Kuyt late on.
Even then, the young City keeper needed Dunne to come to his aid with a goalline clearance from the rebound, ensuring a result which leaves Liverpool 10 points adrift of new leaders Arsenal.
Indeed, on this evidence, the Blues, just a point adrift of the fourth-placed Merseysiders, may take some shaking off as the battle for Champions League spots hots up in the new year.
When the host broadcaster describes a contest as “a thinking man’s game”, the chances are it is a cover for one lacking goalmouth incident, which, in this instance, for the first half at least, was certainly the case.
Given the prize for victory was fourth spot in the table heading into 2008, it would have been nice if Sven-Goran Eriksson had taken the fight to Liverpool right from the start.
Yet the pragmatic Swede has not got City into such a lofty position with free-flowing, attack-at-all-costs tactics.
Eriksson’s philosophy has been to keep it tight at the back and in central midfield, then look to Elano, Martin Petrov, Stephen Ireland or Michael Johnson to conjure something up.
Given the latter man is nursing an abdominal injury, City’s hopes were reduced by 25% and Benitez is too astute a coach himself to give the other three free rein to exhibit their skills.
By half-time, Elano in particular must have been sick of seeing Jamie Carragher in his face.
The Liverpool defender, partnered by Alvaro Arbeloa as Sami Hyypia was ruled out with an ankle problem, was on hand to make a tackle or a block every time the South American came close to threatening.
As a result, City did not manage one single effort on goal during the opening period, although skipper Dunne should have done with a glancing header from Petrov’s corner which ended up bouncing out for a throw-in.
But, to Liverpool’s frustration, it was the same story at the other end, where Dunne and Richards were even more impressive than Carragher in their joint handling Torres.
Fortunate to escape wrestling the 15-goal forward to the floor in one early skirmish, Richards used his strength and speed to blunt Liverpool’s star striker, with Dunne taking up the baton when necessary in equally formidable fashion.
In fact, the only offensive player to get the better of his marker on anything like a regular basis was Harry Kewell, who skipped past Nedum Onuoha on a couple of occasions.
England Under-21 keeper Hart needed a couple of attempts to smother the Australian’s angled drive midway through the half while it was Kewell’s cross that led to Fabio Aurelio lashing a speculative effort narrowly wide on the half-hour.
The suspicion remained Liverpool would eventually find a way through and within five minutes of the restart they had nearly done so three times.
After prodding one shot straight at Hart, Torres then found himself charging onto a Gerrard pass.
The young City keeper advanced quickly but was powerless to prevent Torres nudging the ball past.
For one awful moment, it looked as though Richards and Richard Dunne would get in each other’s way as they raced back to clear before they both realised the effort was not going in and ushered it wide.
Then, Gerrard curled a free-kick narrowly beyond Hart’s left-hand post after Richards had fouled Torres.
Hart tipped over from Yossi Benayoun and Gerrard fired wide as Liverpool maintained their early offensive, with City barely able to get out of their own half.
The introduction of Rolando Bianchi, still a popular figure among the City support despite his wide-ranging attack on the English game, was designed to relieve some of the pressure.
It did not really work as Benayoun and Gerrard peppered the City goal after the £8.8million Italian’s arrival.
But the Blues, and Dunne in particular, would not yield.
The Irishman booted clear after Hart had denied Kuyt and when he slid in to block Benayoun’s goalbound effort at the death, few would deny the defender deserved a share of the spoils.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1) J Hart 8 N Onuoha 6 M Richards 7 R Dunne 9 M Ball 6 D Hamann 6 V Corluka 5 S Ireland 6 Elano 4 M Petrov 5 D Vassell 6 Substitutes Gelson 5 (for Ireland, 61min), R Bianchi 6 (for Elano, 70), Geovanni (for Vassell, 75). Not used A Isaksson, J Garrido.
Liverpool (4-4-2) J M Reina 5 S Finnan 6 Á Arbeloa 5 J Carragher 7 F Aurélio 7 Y Benayoun 6 S Gerrard 6 J Mascherano 6 H Kewell 7 D Kuyt 7 F Torres Y 6 Substitutes R Babel (for Kewell, 75min). Not used C Itandje, J A Riise, X Alonso, A Voronin.
Referee U Rennie