LIVERPOOL, England — Manchester United relied on brilliant goalkeeping by David de Gea and a late, opportunistic finish by Wayne Rooney to snatch a 1-0 win at great rival Liverpool on Sunday, sparking talk of an unlikely run at the Premier League title.
With Arsenal only drawing 0-0 at Stoke a few hours later to return to first place on goal difference above Leicester, United trimmed the gap to the leaders to seven points — with 16 matches still to play in one of the most erratic title races in years.
Talk of United even challenging for the title would been dismissed as fanciful at the end of 2015, when the team was on an eight-game winless run and manager Louis van Gaal’s future looked precarious.
Watch match highlights: Stoke City 0, Arsenal 0 || Liverpool 0, Manchester United 1 ||
Things look very different now.
"Our competitors (for the title) have lost points," said Van Gaal, whose side climbed one place to fifth. "When the gap is like this, seven points, you can overcome that. We started 2016 very good, with a lot of wins and a draw, and we didn’t lose. I think this will give a big boost to players, fans, everyone in the environment of Manchester United."
Finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League is the minimum requirement for United, and Tottenham is only two points away in fourth place.
With Rooney back in the scoring groove, things look much brighter for the 20-time champions.
The England captain took his tally for 2016 to five goals in four games by smashing home a volley from close range in the 78th minute after Marouane Fellaini’s header rebounded off the bar. It was United’s first shot on target, with the team indebted to De Gea for keeping the score at 0-0.
De Gea produced two excellent saves to deny Emre Can, one with his feet and the other a diving, one-handed stop to his right.
Liverpool started without a recognized striker — playing Roberto Firmino alone up front — and while that helped the team dominate midfield, it left them short of firepower. In 19 shots, only four were on target.
Ninth-place Liverpool dropped eight points behind Spurs in a damaging blow to its Champions League aspirations.
"A lot of the things we did today were good," Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp said. "Our finishing wasn’t good."
Goalkeepers were on top at Britannia Stadium, too, with Stoke’s Jack Butland and Arsenal’s Petr Cech getting most of the plaudits after a tight, tense game.
Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud had early chances in each half but Butland reacted well to stop an angled shot and then a powerful header.
Though chasing possession for much of the second half, Stoke could have taken all three points if not for a superb double save by Petr Cech midway through the second half. Aaron Ramsey also cleared a shot from near the goal-line as Stoke mounted late pressure.
Arsenal, missing injured playmaker Mesut Ozil, failed to capitalize on Leicester’s 1-1 draw at Aston Villa on Saturday, and dropped four points this week after also drawing at Liverpool on Wednesday. However, a draw at Stoke was welcome to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose team hasn’t won at the Britannia since 2010.
"We needed to be strong physically andhada great spirit," Wenger said. "We fought very hard but couldn’t take our chances. It is a hard-fought 0-0. We have done better than years before at this ground and showed we can fight even when we miss certain players."
Arsenal and second-place Leicester both have 44 points. Manchester City is a point behind in third after beating Crystal Palace 4-0 on Saturday.