Tottenham confirmed the shift in north London’s balance of power by beating Arsenal 2-1 in the Premier League on Sunday, opening up a seven-point gap between the rivals in the fight for Champions League qualification.
Near-identical goals by Gareth Bale — his 10th in his past eight games — and fellow winger Aaron Lennon in a three-minute span at the end of the first half proved decisive for Spurs, whose euphoric post-match celebrations gave an indication of the psychological importance of the victory. It left them third with 10 games remaining.
Per Mertesacker’s 51st-minute header that deflected in off Bale gave Arsenal hope of a third straight derby comeback from 2-0 down in a typically absorbing and frantic match at White Hart Lane. But the visitors couldn’t avoid a costly loss that leaves them fifth, denting their chances of playing in the Champions League for a 16th straight season under Arsene Wenger.
“It’s not a big enough margin yet to be completely safe,” said Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas, whose team is now unbeaten in 12 league matches. “But what we think is that it can have a direct effect on their motivation — and on ours, too.”
With Arsenal likely to go without silverware for an eighth successive season, Wenger has been pinning his hopes on a top-four finish to salvage something from a miserable campaign. But even that is in serious doubt now, with Chelsea five points ahead in fourth place. There is no more room for error — and such is Arsenal’s fragility, especially in defense, that further setbacks seem likely between now and the end of the season.
“It’s a massive challenge,” Wenger said. “I still think it’s possible and will fight for it, that’s for sure.”
Shinji Kagawa’s hat trick and a stunning goal from Wayne Rooney maintained Manchester United’s march to the Premier League title on Saturday, while Rafa Benitez was spared a fierce backlash from Chelsea fans in the team’s 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
Luis Suarez matched Kagawa’s exploits by scoring three times in Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Wigan, lifting him above United striker Robin van Persie to the top of the division’s scoring charts with 21 goals.
United provisionally moved 15 points clear with a 4-0 thrashing of Norwich at Old Trafford, with Japan midfielder Kagawa opening the scoring just before halftime and grabbing two more well-taken goals to become the first Asian player to score a hat trick in England’s top division.
“It was a brilliant day for him,” said United manager Alex Ferguson, who left Ryan Giggs out of the matchday squad to keep the veteran midfielder waiting for his 1,000th senior competitive appearance for club and country.
Rooney garnished the scoreline with a long-distance screamer in injury time as United warmed up for its Champions League match against Real Madrid in style. Second-place Manchester City plays Aston Villa on Monday.
Chelsea provisionally moved into third place — four points behind City — thanks to Demba Ba’s 28th-minute winner, giving Benitez some respite after his midweek tirade against the club’s fans and board that appeared to leave him in a precarious position.
The hostility among the home support was expected to be cranked up but the atmosphere was relatively calm inside Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the serenity to secure a crucial win in its battle for a finish in the Champions League spots.
“There were a lot of positives,” Benitez said. “The reception from the crowd was quite good. I wanted everybody to stick together.”
Last-place Queens Park Rangers gave its survival hopes a boost by winning 2-1 at Southampton to move three points adrift of Reading, which lost 3-1 at Everton.
Swansea’s first game since winning the League Cup final last weekend ended in a 1-0 victory at home to Newcastle, with Luke Moore scoring a late winner, while Sunderland came from two goals down to draw 2-2 against Fulham.
West Ham stopped its slide into the relegation trouble by beating Stoke 1-0 away.
All the pre-match build-up centered on the possibility of Giggs reaching his milestone, but it was another midfielder who stole the headlines at Old Trafford.
Playing only his second game since January, Kagawa showed just why Ferguson spent 12 million pounds bringing him from Borussia Dortmund in the summer with his best display in a United shirt.
All his finishes were classy, his first a measured volley inside the near post to put United on its way. Kagawa then wrong-footed Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn in the 76th after running onto Rooney’s pass and he chipped Bunn to complete his hat trick three minutes from time.
Kagawa, who has struggled to recover his best form after sustaining a knee injury in October, walked away with the match ball for scoring three goals but the best strike was saved for last, as Rooney shimmied past a defender before looping a brilliant shot into the top corner from 30 yards (meters).
The win was sealed despite Ferguson leaving out Rafael da Silva, Rio Ferdinand and Tom Cleverley, who are all set to return to the first team for the last-16 second leg against Madrid on Tuesday.
After all the talk of an expected toxic atmosphere, Chelsea’s fans let Benitez off quite lightly after his outburst Wednesday following the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough.
Perhaps his pleas for unity have been heeded, with the team given plenty of encouragement throughout. The margin of victory should have been far heavier, and West Brom could easily have snatched an equalizer after late pressure in the final 10 minutes.
As it was, Ba’s sidefooted finish from David Luiz’s nod-down proved enough.
“The players played with more confidence and it was clear it was very positive,” Benitez said.
Suarez is now two goals clear of Van Persie after joining Robbie Fowler and Fernando Torres as the only Liverpool players to score at least 20 goals in a Premier League campaign.
The Uruguay international scored twice before halftime and completed his hat trick in the 49th, adding to the second-minute opener netted by Stewart Downing.