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Press Association report

Manchester United's championship challenge suffered a potentially devastating blow as 10-man Liverpool survived the first half dismissal of Michael Owen and a second half bombardment.

Alex Ferguson's men, dragged back level when Owen capitalised on a Gary Pallister blunder to cancel out Ronny Johnsen's opener, looked poised for a win to put real pressure on Arsenal when Owen received his marching orders in the 40th minute.

The England ace, picked out before the match by no less an expert than Pele as Glenn Hoddle's brightest talent, had demonstrated exactly that by running the legs off the United rearguard.

Sheer speed had brought the 18-year-old his 20th goal of the season eight minutes before the interval, streaking between Pallister and Peter Schmeichel to score.

But Owen had already been rightly cautioned by referee Graham Poll after recklessly lunging in on Schmeichel just before his goal.

And three minutes later, Owen dived in late again, catching Johnsen with his studs straight onto the Norwegian's ankle, leaving the official with little alternative but to dismiss him.

It was Owen's second red card of the season - his first was on England under-18 duty against Yugoslavia - but where Liverpool might have folded, they refused to buckle.

Paul Ince's unwillingness to contemplate defeat on his Old Trafford return summed up the defiance of Roy Evans' side.

While United had all the possession in the world, they did not make real use of it, the only real scares coming in the final two minutes.

First Rob Jones denied Andy Cole with a goalline clearance after Brad Friedel made his one error of the game and then Paul Scholes dragged wide from 12 yards.

But Liverpool hung on for a draw that will be as well received in North London as Merseyside.

Although United increased their lead, Arsenal will reduce it to four - with three games in hand - if they beat Newcastle at Highbury tomorrow, and more importantly United's inability to beat 10 men may give the Gunners a priceless psychological edge as well.

And to make things worse, Ferguson saw Ryan Giggs hobble away with what might be a recurrence of his hamstring problem and will mean an anxious wait for bulletins from the physio room.

The end was an frantic as the beginning from was never going to be anything other than a torrid afternoon.

Ince had stoked up the passions - if they needed to be - with his "piece of meat" jibes this morning, but the England midfielder, unsurprisingly jeered throughout by the home fans, might have feared his men would be sliced up inside 80 seconds.

Danny Murphy played Dominic Matteo into trouble, and Giggs skipped away, bearing down on goal only for Friedel to save.

The ball fell for Scholes, 15 yards out with the goal gaping, but Phil Babb somehow got back to clear.

Then it was Liverpool's turn, Steve McManaman firing in an effort Schmeichel could not hold, with Owen showing the over-enthusiasm which was to prove so costly later on as he slid in and caught the keeper.

Still, United, with Nicky Butt's return beefing up their middle, were the sharper, Liverpool loose and sloppy, and paying the price in the 12th minute.

Failure to mark properly at United corners has been fatal for Liverpool in recent seasons, yet they have not learned, and so it proved again.

Beckham, given a second invitation after his first delivery had caused all sorts of problems, floated in from the United left and Johnsen, left utterly unmarked six yards out, thumped his header past a stranded Friedel.

It should have been the signal for Ferguson's side to turn it on. Instead, with Murphy - standing-in for Karlheinz Riedle as Owen's strike partner - showing his promise, Liverpool took up the gauntlet.

Owen's sheer pace was the key, the youngster showing just what Pele sees in him by embarrassing Pallister and Denis Irwin after Murphy had threaded through, then squaring to McManaman eight yards out, only a poor touch and subsequent delay allowing Gary Neville to block.

Giggs was clearly not happy, and while Gary Neville's snapshot after a Beckham free-kick had hit the Liverpool wall was close, the visitors were beginning to show confidence on the ball.

One Ince shot from 20 yards brought a fine diving stop from Schmeichel before Owen, chasing down a short back-pass from Neville after Murphy's ball, carried on into the Dane.

No complaints as Mr Poll - who had already booked Butt - showed yellow, although how Pallister escaped after bringing down McManaman was less obvious.

McManaman then somehow managed to miss his second sitter of the half, ghosting in beyond the United back line from Murphy's clever ball but showing once again, for all his claims to the contrary, that he is not a natural scorer as he blasted over.

Within a minute, all was forgiven as Owen demonstrated his speed off the mark.

When Murphy prodded through, Pallister was the favourite, with Schmeichel the obvious option. But the defender stopped, the Dane was suddenly exposed, and Owen nipped between the pair to score.

With Giggs forced off - Ben Thornley coming on - the odds seemed to be tilting towards Liverpool, yet joy turned to despair so quickly for the teenager, clearly catching Johnsen after an exchange with Schmeichel and instantly knowing his afternoon was over early.

Murphy now became the lone striker, Liverpool having to defend in numbers as United - with David May on for Johnsen - poured forward either side of the break.

Scholes, after a superb one-touch move around the Liverpool box, flashed one volley wide before the interval, while Cole went for glory when a simple pass to Scholes might have brought better reward.

Even though they were defending, Liverpool, with pace still in McManaman and constant work by Murphy, were a threat, Schmeichel thrusting out a big right hand after Murphy's flick had released Oyvind Leonhardsen.

Now though, they were being pushed further and further back, Butt and then Gary Neville drilling wide before his brother Phil was replaced by Teddy Sheringham, Ferguson aware how important three points were.

Back, but not giving much away, United not taking advantage of the extra man or the tiring Liverpool limbs, Murphy making way for Patrik Berger with 15 to go, Friedel rarely tested.

The American did make one brave punch off Sheringham's head, but too often for Ferguson he did not have saves to make as shots flew everywhere but the target.

Right at the death Cole finally hit the target after Friedel missed Beckham's cross and then Scholes, who had shot wide after a lucky ricochet, dragged off target again in the dying seconds. Two points dropped, no question.

Teams:

Man Utd: Schmeichel, G. Neville, Irwin, Johnsen (May 43), Pallister, Beckham, Butt, Cole, Giggs (Thornley 38), P. Neville (Sheringham 65), Scholes.

Subs Not Used: Van Der Gouw, Berg.

Booked: Butt.

Goals: Johnsen 12.

Liverpool: Friedel, Jones, Matteo, Babb, Harkness, McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Leonhardsen, Owen, Murphy (Berger 75).

Subs Not Used: James, Kvarme, Thomas, Carragher.

Sent Off: Owen (40).

Booked: Owen, Leonhardsen.

Goals: Owen 36.

Att: 55,171

Ref: G Poll (Tring).

Copyright - Press Association

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