Ex-Royals boss Brendan Rodgers saw his side line up chance after chance, taking a staggering 26 shots, but they were unable to make the most of them, with McCarthy making a string of fine saves.
The draw halted bottom club Reading's run of seven successive Premier League defeats and while it may not prevent them from being relegated, the spirit on display will have been appreciated by manager Nigel Adkins.
An impeccably observed minute's silence to mark the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster preceded a lacklustre opening to the encounter, with the only moment of note in the early minutes coming when a casual approach from Pepe Reina in dealing with Danny Guthrie's cross almost allowed Noel Hunt a header on goal.
The first real chance came after 14 minutes through Liverpool's Luis Suarez after some wonderful passing movement between the Reds' front free. The Uruguayan dinked the ball over McCarthy, leaving it to Chris Gunter to produce a headed goal-line clearance. That seemed to inject some fire into the Liverpool players and Suarez came close again, prompting a quick-thinking save from McCarthy with a close-range header.
The Reds were on the assault in the 21st minute when a sloppy pass from Garath McCleary allowed Steven Gerrard to snatch possession and feed Daniel Sturridge, who teed up Suarez for a shot, forcing another save from McCarthy. The keeper was called into action again seconds later as he got his fingertips to Phillippe Coutinho's curling shot, then Jamie Carragher headed wide from the resulting corner as the Merseysiders continued to press.
There was a double chance for Liverpool and more stellar work from McCarthy after Gunter carelessly gave away possession again, allowing Suarez to slip the ball through to Sturridge, prompting another low save from the keeper. Adrian Mariappa then stepped in with a crucial block to deny Steven Gerrard on the rebound.
The Liverpool onslaught continued as a tremendous break saw Sturridge cross in a dangerous ball for Coutinho, who could only slash it wide, then the dying stages of the opening half saw both Jordan Henderson and Sturridge come close, with McCarthy making another superb save on the latter from point-blank range after he had been set up by Daniel Agger's header.
Liverpool continued to press early in the second half and the goal was in the net in the 49th minute thanks to a delightful backheeled flick from Coutinho off a low cross from Gerrard - but the linesman's flag was up. Frustration crept into Liverpool's game as Suarez attempted a shot moments later and blasted it well wide.
A rare chance for the hosts saw Guthrie try his luck from 20 yards, but his powerful shot ricocheted clear. Reading were then allowed their best opportunity of the game and were denied only by Reina's brilliant reflex save as Hunt came close to sliding the ball home from in front of goal from Pogrebnyak's low cross.
McAnuff came close for the hosts when he wriggled through the Reds' defence and got a powerful shot away that Reina did well to tip over the crossbar. The chances continued to flow as Suarez took a free-kick for the Reds at the other end and drove his delivery from the left just wide, then forced a low save from McCarthy soon after after a slight deflection took the pace off his shot.
McCarthy continued to dazzle between the sticks, denying Gerrard, Suarez and Downing in quick succession. As the minutes trickled down it appeared it was not to be Liverpool's day as Suarez set up Sturridge in the box with a neat ball but the striker wasted another gilt-edged chance, blasting over. Fittingly, another brilliant save from McCarthy near enough closed out the match as the keeper denied Suarez again to sum up a frustrating afternoon for the Reds.