LONDON: Premiership leaders Arsenal blazed into 2003 with a 3-2 win over title rivals Chelsea that represents a huge step towards retaining their league crown.
Manchester United needed a stoppage time winner from Paul Scholes to secure a victory over relegation-threatened Sunderland that moved them into second place, five points adrift of the champions.
Arsenal lived almost as dangerously after allowing their London rivals to come back from 3-0 down to the point where they could have snatched a point if Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had not missed an easy header in the dying minutes.
But the Gunners held on to leave the title race looking increasingly like a two-horse race.
Dennis Bergkamp marked his return to the side with a 9th-minute volley that took a deflection off Marcel Desailly to give Arsenal the lead.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Thierry Henry then looked to have made the points safe before Chelsea staged a late rally with goals from Mario Stanic and Emmanuel Petit.
“Spirit got us through,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told SkySports.
“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 are lessons to be learned. But I would take a positive lesson out of this game because this team is absolutely fantastic spirit-wise.”
Manchester United had looked destined for a shock defeat at Old Trafford as the game entered the final ten minutes with Sunderland still holding on to a lead they had earned thanks to their Argentinian player Juan Veron’s 5th-minute own goal.
But their relentless pressure finally paid off with man-of-the-match David Beckham equalising before Scholes popped up to head the winner past the inspirational Jurgen Macho.
“We knew we could not afford to draw, let alone lose,” Beckham said.
“At times it felt like it was going to be one of those days but we kept battling and we showed a lot of character.”
United boss Alex Ferguson paid tribute to the way his side kept pushing for the victory.
“It was perseverance and determination that won it for us,” the Scot said. “We’ve never given up and the late goal showed the resolve of the team. I think we deserved it and we played really well.”
Paying tribute to Beckham, back at his best after a spell on the sidelines with a rib injury, Ferguson said: “He was tremendous. He’s come back, he’s shown a lot of freshness and he’s worked his socks off today.
“It was a difficult position after the own goal we gave away so early in the match and the chances we were missing. But we kept going, kept going and we deserved what we got.
“It was a significant result.”
Sunderland manager Howard Wilkinson said: “We’ve got to look at the good points, learn from the bad and move on.”
Everton’s challenge faltered again with only Tomasz Radzinski's injury-time equaliser securing a 2-2 draw at home to Manchester City.
Steve Watson had given the home side an early lead but after Nicolas Anelka equalised it was City who looked set to win when Marc-Vivien Foe headed home a Sun Jihai cross eight minutes from the end.
In the day’s other action, Aston Villa strikers Dion Dublin and Darius Vassell scored in either half to secure the points against Bolton.
Leeds extended their recent strong run to 13 points from a possible 15 in their last five matches with a businesslike 2-0 win over Birmingham. Erik Bakke and Mark Viduka were the scorers.
James Beattie took his tally for the season to 13 goals and sustained Southampton's push for a place in Europe with a late winner against Tottenham.
Heavy rain in the London area forced the postponement of the matches between Charlton v West Ham and Fulham v West Bromwich Albion. – AFP