Manchester United beat old rivals Liverpool 3-0 at Old Trafford on Sunday as the reigning champions were left five points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
But it was Chelsea who became United’s nearest challengers after a double from Didier Drogba saw them come from a goal behind to beat Arsenal 2-1 and so leapfrog the Gunners into second place in Sunday’s other top-four clash.
Defences dominated in the London derby at Stamford Bridge before right-back Bacary Sagna stole in to head home a Cesc Fabregas corner at an unguarded near post in the 59th minute for his first Arsenal goal.
However, Chelsea — now unbeaten in 78 league matches at their west London home — hit back in the 73rd minute when Drogba smashed the ball in following a lay-off by England midfielder Frank Lampard.
Eight minutes from time, Côte d’Ivoire international Drogba completed Chelsea’s revival.
Former Arsenal striker Nicolas Anelka, sent on as a substitute by heavily criticised Chelsea manager Avram Grant, headed on a long ball from the right and Drogba’s toe poke was good enough to beat Manuel Almunia despite the goalkeeper getting a hand to the ball.
Defeat left Arsenal six points behind United and was only their second loss in the league this season following December’s 2-1 loss away to Middlesbrough.
Earlier, United left the field deserved winners although Liverpool, now a massive 14 points off top spot and effectively out of the title race, were left feeling hard done by following Javier Mascherano’s controversial first-half sending-off.
Another right-back was an equally unlikely opening goal hero for United with England defender Wes Brown putting the home side in front in the 34th minute when he beat Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina to a Wayne Rooney cross.
Liverpool, who remained fourth in the table, were then reduced to 10 men when Mascherano was sent off just before half-time for dissent. Having already been booked, the Argentinian was shown the red card after he had complained to referee Steve Bennett over a series of lively tackles on Liverpool teammate Fernando Torres.
Cristiano Ronaldo then doubled United’s lead with his 34th goal of a remarkable season in the 79th minute. Once again Reina was beaten to a cross, this time from a Nani corner, and Portugal winger Ronaldo headed home for his first goal against Liverpool.
Two minutes later, Nani made it 3-0 after a neat one-two with Rooney.
England’s top four clubs are all through to the Champions League quarterfinals. — Sapa-AFP