As the final few minutes ticked away, Reading's supporters could be heard chanting "England's No1" in praise of what must rank as one of the most astonishing goalkeeping displays ever seen in these parts. The hosts had been battered by a Liverpool side who appeared hell-bent on racking up a cricket score but simply could not find a way past Alex McCarthy. The 23-year-old made save after save and, as his team continue to slide towards relegation, provided them with hope for the future.

Liverpool had 23 shots on goal compared with Reading's five, with 11 on target and the vast majority of them kept out by McCarthy. His display began with a double save from Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho early in the first half and peaked late on with a point-blank stop from Luis Suárez that left the Uruguayan looking on in anguish.

What made McCarthy's display even more astonishing was that it came in his first appearance since undergoing a shoulder operation for an injury he picked up on 4 November. Having usurped Adam Federici as Reading's No1, McCarthy had not played since then but returned on Saturday with a bang.

"Our players couldn't have done any more," Brendan Rodgers said. "Some of our interchange play was outstanding but it was just one of those days – we came up against an inspired goalkeeper."

The Liverpool manager knows McCarthy from his six-month spell as Reading manager in 2009 and, like the home fans, feels the former England Under-21 international has the credentials to play for the senior team.

"It'll be a hard job as Joe Hart is one of the top five goalkeepers in world football but Alex is a top talent," he said. "He showed that he can make saves, is good with his feet and very assured in his overall performance."

Nigel Adkins also praised McCarthy, describing his display as "world class", but the Reading manager was keen to point out that had it not been for José Reina's point-blank save from Noel Hunt midway through the second half, his side could have won.

But that would have been wholly unjustified given the gulf in class between the sides. Reading played with all the tentativeness of a team who had lost their last eight matches and find themselves rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, with their passing in particular lacking conviction. That was no more glaring than in the 33rd minute when Chris Gunter played an awful back-pass that was easily intercepted by Sturridge and played into the path of Suárez. McCarthy, unsurprisingly, pulled off a crucial save.

This contest had started with an impeccably observed minute's silence in tribute to the 96 Liverpool supporters who died at the Hillsborough disaster, the 24th anniversary of which falls on Monday, although the atmosphere soon changed as the away section made clear their joy at the passing of Margaret Thatcher. Flares and fireworks were let off while some danced in delight at the death of a woman almost universally loathed on Merseyside. There was even a conga.

On the pitch Sturridge, Suárez and Coutinho moved with fluidity and pace, their passing crisp and incisive. Reading could not cope and it appeared only a matter of time before the side with the worst defence in the Premier League conceded. McCarthy was beaten after 15 minutes only for Suárez to see his lob over the goalkeeper headed off the goalline by Gunter. Early in the second half Coutinho had the ball in the back of the net after back-heeling Steven Gerrard's cross but the effort was ruled out for offside.

Liverpool became ragged for a period, during which Hunt should have scored, but they finished strongly and will reflect with frustration at a second goalless draw in succession.

For Reading, relegation looms larger. They are seven points away from safety with five fixtures remaining. "We'll keep working hard," said Adkins as somewhere in the stadium his goalkeeper reflected on the performance of his life.