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Liverpool stumbles with 0-0 draw at lowly Stoke

LIVERPOOL stumbled in a 0-0 draw with Stoke yesterday, a day after manager Rafa Benitez angrily dismissed Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's claim that the Reds' English Premier League title bid will falter due to nerves.

Captain Steven Gerrard hit the crossbar and the post in the last six minutes as lowly Stoke held the 18-time champions for a second time this season, raising further doubts about the league leader's ability to hold on for a first English title since 1990.

United and Chelsea have won at newcomer Stoke this season, and last season's top two will be looking to take advantage of Liverpool's slip-up when they meet on Sunday.

Aston Villa moved into third with a 2-1 win over local rival West Bromwich Albion.

Late goals enabled fifth-place Arsenal to stay in sight of the Champions League places with a 1-0 victory over Bolton, and Sunderland earned a 1-1 draw at local rival Middlesbrough.

Everton swept aside Hull 2-0 and Newcastle drew 2-2 with West Ham.

Frozen pitches forced the postponement of two topflight matches _ Portsmouth-Manchester City and Fulham-Blackburn _ while much of the lower-league program was wiped out.

Benitez's astonishing attack on Ferguson came after the Scot said Liverpool would "make mistakes ... and get punished" in the second half of the season.

And Stoke, which climbed out of the relegation zone with the draw, could have been ahead in the 12th when Rory Delap, who began the attack with one of his long throw-ins, hit the crossbar from six meters (yards) and Richard Cresswell was unable to react to the rebound.

Benitez attacked Ferguson's conduct toward referees and the league, and the Spaniard insisted the outburst hadn't proved a distraction as Liverpool still went four points ahead of Chelsea.

"When you are top you want to win, it doesn't matter which game it is," Benitez said. "After 22 years with Ferguson in charge it could have been any moment so why not the other day?

"I think it was the right moment to say, 'That's it, now we will talk about everything.' I was thinking about defending my team. I thought, 'Enough is enough, that's it."'

Liverpool, which didn't use expensive substitute striker Robbie Keane, struggled to break down Stoke. A rare shot from Dirk Kuyt was blocked by Thomas Sorensen at the near post.

Villa midfielder Steve Sidwell had two headers cleared off the line before the ball eventually fell to Gareth Barry, who whipped in a cross for Curtis Davies to head in his first goal of the season against his former side.

An error by West Brom goalkeeper Scott Carson produced the winner before the break. Barry released Gabriel Agbonlahor down the left and the forward cut into the penalty area unchallenged despite five West Brom players in proximity and not a single attacking man in support.

The England striker struck the ball across the goalmouth, but it was going wide until Carson managed to deflect it under his left arm and over the line.

The Baggies pulled one back in the 49th when substitute Roman Bednar headed down to James Morrison and the Scotland midfielder turned Martin Laursen before sending a shot past Brad Friedel, helped by a slight deflection off Davies.

West Brom had two penalty claims dismissed in stoppage time when Bednar and Robert Koren tumbled.

"It was a really tough game," Villa manager Martin O'Neill said. "But I still thought in spells we were exhilarating at times."

Arsenal left it late to overcome a stubborn Bolton side with Nicklas Bendtner latching on to Robin van Persie's cross and sliding the ball in at the far post with six minutes remaining.

"We are already swimming enough against the stream not to drop points against Bolton," Wenger said of Arsenal slipping away from the leaders.

Everton helped to cement a top-six place by completing its fifth game without a defeat or conceding a goal.

Marouane Fellaini fired Everton ahead in the 18th despite the Belgium midfielder heading from what appeared to be an offside position.

But there was no disputing Mikel Arteta's stunning 30-meter free kick, which found the net on the stroke of half time.

Sunderland striker Kenwyne's 82nd-minute goal canceled out the powerful opener from Middlesbrough's Afonso Alves.

Michael Owen struck early for Newcastle, then West Ham went ahead through strikers Craig Bellamy and Carlton Cole, but Andy Carroll's 78th-minute header salvaged a point for the Magpies.


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