As the Premier League gets ready to pause for the World Cup, some unlikely storylines are in place for the second half of the season.
Arsenal has a five-point lead and is undoubtedly Manchester City’s biggest challenger for its title.
Newcastle is increasingly looking like a team with enough quality to get into the Champions League.
Graham Potter and Frank Lampard, meanwhile, might do well to finish the season in their respective jobs at Chelsea and Everton.
The final round of matches before a six-week break saw Arsenal respond to City’s shock 2-1 home loss to Brentford by beating Wolverhampton 2-0 to open up its biggest lead so far in the league.
Martin Odegaard’s goals in the 55th and 75th minutes earned Arsenal a 12th win in 14 games. The only points Mikel Arteta’s team will have dropped before Christmas came in a loss at Manchester United and a draw at Southampton, a brilliant run of results that few could have seen coming.
While Arsenal’s players maintained their intensity at Molineux, City’s stars — including the recalled Erling Haaland — were unusually flat at Etihad Stadium as Ivan Toney reacted to his snub by England for the World Cup by scoring the opener in the 16th and the winner in the eighth minute of stoppage time. Phil Foden had equalized for City, which is two points clear of third-place Newcastle after its 1-0 win over crisis-hit Chelsea.
Newcastle has now won five straight games to boost its improbable — at least this season — bid to qualify for the Champions League in its first full season under Saudi ownership.
Seven points separate Newcastle and fifth-place Manchester United, which visits Fulham in one of two games taking place on Sunday.
Joe Willock’s curling shot from outside the area condemned Chelsea to its third loss in a row. Its only wins in the last eight games have come in the Champions League, with a defeat at Manchester City also eliminating Chelsea from the League Cup in midweek.
“We are in a bad moment,” said Potter, who replaced Thomas Tuchel in September and is regularly tinkering with his lineup in search of the right formula. “We take the break to recharge and go again.”
The long break will test the faith that Chelsea’s American owners, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, have in the man they chose to lead their overhaul of the London club.
Late comebacks are becoming Tottenham’s trademark.
The latest rally came in a wild 4-3 win at home to Leeds, which saw Spurs come from behind three times before a double from Rodrigo Bentancur — in the 81st and 83rd minutes — sealed victory.
Tottenham’s last three wins have come from losing positions — from 2-0 down at Bournemouth, with Bentancur netting the winner in stoppage time; and 2-1 at Marseille to seal progress in the Champions League.
Harry Kane scored Tottenham’s first goal for his 13th of the season, while American midfielder Tyler Adams was sent off in the 87th for two yellow cards for Leeds.
Darwin Núñez will head to the World Cup having finally hit his stride in his first season at Liverpool.
The Uruguay striker scored twice in Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Southampton, which was managed for the first time by Nathan Jones after he came in as a replacement for Ralph Hasenhuttl this week.
Núñez, who joined for $75 million from Benfica, is starting to score steadily for Jurgen Klopp’s team. That’s seven goals in his last 10 matches and he now looks settled in his role on the left of a front three.
Liverpool climbed to sixth place, seven points off the Champions League spots.
WORLD CUP SCARES
Two days after earning a surprise England call-up for the World Cup, James Maddison sustained an injury that threatened to jeopardize his chances of going to Qatar.
Maddison, however, played down the right hamstring problem that forced him off the field soon after opening the scoring for Leicester in its 2-0 win at West Ham.
“It should be fine,” the 25-year-old Maddison said. “Yeah, I think so.”
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers, who saw Harvey Barnes score the second goal, said Maddison came off as a precaution.
In another injury worry, Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka came off in the 16th minute of Arsenal’s win at Wolves with an unspecified issue. He sustained the problem early and briefly played on.
Everton’s players and manager Frank Lampard were berated and subjected to jeers and whistles as they went over toward the travelling support after the final whistle of the team’s 3-0 loss at Bournemouth.
England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, in particular, was seen remonstrating with Everton’s supporters before captain Seamus Coleman and Lampard seemingly attempted to defuse the situation.
Pickford was partially at fault for Bournemouth’s opener, scored by Marcus Tavernier, before further goals by Kieffer Moore and Jadon Anthony as Everton plunged to within a point and a place of the relegation zone.
Lampard felt his team’s display warranted the reaction from fans, four days after Everton lost 4-1 at the same ground in the League Cup.
“The fans have a right to be disappointed,” Lampard said, “because they’ve come down here twice this week and seen poor performances and before that we’ve been going OK.”
Nottingham Forest is just behind Everton after beating Crystal Palace 1-0 to climb off the bottom of the standings. Wilfried Zaha missed a penalty.
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