| Manchester United’s David Beckham celebrates after scoring against Sunderland during their English Premier League match at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The Red Devils won 2-1. (AP/PTI)
London: Arsenal entered the New Year ideally placed to retain their Premier League crown after severely denting the challenge of another title pretender with a 3-2 victory over Chelsea Wednesday (as reported in Thursday’s Late City edition).
Last season’s double winners have 46 points, eight more than their London rivals, with second-placed Manchester United reinstalled as their main threat.
United are five points behind on 41 after Paul Scholes added an injury-time goal to England captain David Beckham’s 81st-minute equaliser to give them a 2-1 home win over lowly Sunderland.
Newcastle United, with a game in hand on the top three, are fourth on 38 after beating Liverpool 1-0 at St James’ Park.Everton are fifth on 36 after a 2-2 home draw with Manchester City, with Southampton up to a surprise sixth on 35 following their 1-0 home win over Tottenham Hotspur.
Liverpool, who have now taken four points from the last 30, are seventh on 34 and in disarray — they led the table by four points just seven weeks ago.
Arsenal won the Highbury showdown, thanks to an early Marcel Desailly own goal and strikes by Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Thierry Henry after 81 and 83 minutes. Mario Stanic and Emmanuel Petit then got two in two minutes for Chelsea, but the comeback came too late to prevent them taking just one point from three games.
“Spirit got us through,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. “At 3-0, we thought it was done, relaxed a little and we got quickly punished. We got away with 3-2 but it became very, very dangerous in the end.”
There was some bad news for Wenger, however, as Henry suffered a hamstring strain and will miss Saturday’s FA Cup third round tie with Oxford United.
Manchester United fell behind in the fourth minute as Juan Sebastian Veron’s attempted clearance only helped Gavin McCann’s chip over the line.
United absolutely battered the visitors from then on, only to be foiled by a superb display from Sunderland ’keeper Juergen Macho. Beckham finally found a way past him though after a simple clearance from Rio Ferdinand, and Scholes then popped up to head the winner.
In a late kick-off at St James’ Park Newcastle went ahead in the 13th minute when Laurent Robert’s free-kick crashed through the Liverpool ‘wall’ and beyond Chris Kirkland.
Liverpool barely threatened all match and ended it with 10 men after the 66th-minute dismissal of Senegalese mideo Salif Diao for a second booking.
Newcastle ground out their ninth successive home league win and left Liverpool facing an uncertain New Year. “If we could play every game at home we could win the championship,” said Newcastle manager Bobby Robson. “It will take an outstanding team to come here and beat us. I don’t think we can win it (the title). I think Arsenal and Manchester United are just that bit ahead of us but we won’t be very far away.”
Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier accepted that his team had been out-muscled. “It was a very physical game and I thought they were better than us in that area,” said the Frenchman. “I think my players know they were outclassed physically and they will learn from that.”Liverpool are now 12 points behind Arsenal, a gap Houllier admitted looked unbridgeable. “I think it will be difficult to catch up with Arsenal, I don’t see them losing 12 points,” he said.
Leeds United made it four wins and a draw in their last five with a 2-0 home success against Birmingham City while James Beattie got his 13th of the season as Southampton took their unbeaten run to eight with their win over Spurs.
Aston Villa beat Bolton Wanderers 2-0, Blackburn Rovers beat Middlesbrough 1-0. Charlton Athletic against West Ham United and Fulham against West Bromwich Albion were postponed because of waterlogged pitches.