LIVERPOOL took another significant step towards a first top-flight title in 29 years by thrashing Arsenal 5-1 to open up a seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League, thanks also to Tottenham’s collapse at home to Wolves.
Manchester City are once again Liverpool’s closest challengers ahead of a blockbuster clash between the two on Thursday as the champions recovered from back-to-back defeats to beat Southampton 3-1.
Manchester United’s revival since Jose Mourinho’s sacking continued with Paul Pogba again scoring twice to beat Bournemouth 4-1, but United remain eight points off the top four after Chelsea beat Crystal Palace 1-0.
Here, we look at five things we learned from the Premier League’s final fixtures of 2018.
Liverpool’s title to lose?
The league leaders haven’t lost all season and unless City end their invincible campaign so far at the Etihad this week, it is looking increasingly likely that Liverpool’s time has come.
The reaction at times of adversity often makes the mark of champions and after falling behind for the first time in the league at Anfield in nearly a year, Liverpool were ahead within five minutes against Arsenal.
Roberto Firmino scored a hat-trick, while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane were also on target as the front three that fired Jurgen Klopp’s men to the Champions League final last season all scored in the same league game for the first time this campaign.
Should that front three hit top form to compliment a defensive record of eight goals conceded in 20 games, it is hard to see how Liverpool will be stopped.
City’s response of champions
The champions weren’t at their sparkling best, but got what Pep Guardiola admitted was the most important thing – a win – to restore some confidence before they try to end Liverpool’s unbeaten start.
“If you want to be there as far as possible until the end we have to remember what happened last season and this [season] as well – apart from the last few days,” insisted Guardiola.
The return of David Silva, who scored City’s opener, and Fernandinho to the midfield made a massive difference and City may even have Kevin de Bruyne back too in time for Thursday.
Spurs run out of steam
Despite a run of five straight victories, Tottenham were always seen as outsiders in the title race and any chance they had may have disappeared by Wolves’ late show as the visitors scored three times in the final 18 minutes to win 3-1 at Wembley.
Spurs were in total control in the first half but the strains of 29 games in three competitions on a stretched squad in the first five months of the season began to show in a tired performance after the break.
“Today for us it’s a clear example that if we are not consistent enough, with not only good quality during the game, and the right energy, it’s difficult to compete for big things,” said a disappointed Mauricio Pochettino.
Emery’s Arsenal stalling
Arsene Wenger was chastised when Arsenal conceded four at Anfield last August at the beginning of his final season in charge at Arsenal. On Saturday, Unai Emery’s side had conceded four by half-time.
Despite a 22-game unbeaten run between August and December, Arsenal are now just one point better off after 20 games than they were last season when finishing sixth.
In contrast to their last meeting with Liverpool in a 1-1 draw in November when Emery’s impact had Arsenal re-energised and freshly filled with optimism, the Gunners looked mentally and physically soft when met with Liverpool’s pace, power and belief.
Chelsea now have a five-point cushion in the race for the top four and defensive reinforcements are clearly needed in January if Arsenal are to compete for a Champions League return.
What a difference little more than a week has made to spirits at United.
Eight days ago life without Jose Mourinho began with a 5-1 thrashing of Cardiff, while both Huddersfield and Bournemouth have now been sent packing from Old Trafford with the sort of routine defeat United fans expect.
Paul Pogba wasn’t even on the pitch for the final act of Mourinho’s reign as he sat on the bench for the full 90 minutes in defeat to Liverpool, but Solskjaer’s promise to build his team around the Frenchman has paid off instantly.
After scoring twice against Huddersfield, Pogba bagged another double on Sunday as well as setting up Romelu Lukaku’s fourth goal and hitting the post.
This version of the midfielder is the one United thought they were buying when paying a then world record £89 million ($113 million) in 2016.