An Eden Hazard hat-trick swept Chelsea back to the top of the Premier League on Saturday as they beat Newcastle United 3-0 at Stamford Bridge after morning leaders Arsenal were thrashed 5-1 at Liverpool.
High-scoring Manchester City, who started the day in second place and could have gone top, slipped to third after failing to find the net for the second successive game in a 0-0 draw at Norwich City who defended heroically.
With 13 games remaining Chelsea are top with 56 points followed by Arsenal on 55, Manchester City with 54 and Liverpool on 50.
Everton (45) and Tottenham Hotspur (44), fifth and sixth respectively, meet at White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Chelsea, described by manager Jose Mourinho this week as “the little horse” competing against the “big horses” of Arsenal and City, got their noses in front in the most open title race for years with a comprehensive victory over Newcastle.
The visitors had no answer to Hazard’s artistry with the Belgium winger scoring in the 27th and 34th minutes. His third goal came from the penalty spot after striker Samuel Eto’o was fouled by substitute Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
Mourinho though was unhappy with Chelsea’s first half performance despite them leading 2-0 at the break although he praised Hazard and said he could not understand why he had not won a Player of the Month award yet this season.
“We gave them too much freedom to play,” he told Sky Sports, “but after that we completely controlled the game”.
Liverpool made a mockery of Arsenal being top, crushing them with a stunning display of attacking football that produced four goals in an astonishing first 20 minutes from Martin Skrtel (2), Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge.
Sterling added a fifth early in the second half before Mikel Arteta scored a consolation for the Gunners from the penalty spot.
The victory put Liverpool back in the title race and, as manager Arsene Wenger conceded, raised questions about Arsenal’s ambitions.
Arsenal had conceded just four goals in eight unbeaten league matches before Liverpool went on the rampage.
Despite the emphatic win and Liverpool’s total dominance, which led bookmakers to cut the Merseyside club’s championship odds from 25-1 to 12-1, coach Brendan Rodgers played down title talk.
“Everything about our game was incredible today, it was an amazing performance against an outstanding team. The title has not been a target but we are improving and everything we did today was outstanding,” said Rodgers.
Wenger said: “It was a very poor day. It raises some questions today because we were caught many times and were naive.”
Arsenal will have a quick chance of avenging their first league defeat at Anfield since 2007 when the two sides meet in an FA Cup fifth-round tie at the Emirates next weekend.
Although Norwich and Manchester City failed to produce a goal at Carrow Road, the result was something of a moral victory for the Canaries who lost 7-0 at the Etihad Stadium in November.
The visitors, with 115 goals in all competitions this season, also failed to score in a 1-0 home defeat by Chelsea on Monday and only had two shots on target on Saturday.
Coach Manuel Pellegrini told the BBC: “We are frustrated because we could not win. We did all we could do but in front of us there was a team who defended very well.”
Although there were no goals at Norwich there were plenty elsewhere, leaving the bottom 11 teams separated by just eight points.
There were wins for Crystal Palace, who beat visiting West Bromwich Albion 3-1 with debutants Thomas Ince and Joe Ledley among the scorers, while West Ham United improved their chances of staying up with a Kevin Nolan double sinking Aston Villa 2-0.
Swansea City, playing their first match under caretaker coach Garry Monk following the departure of Michael Laudrup on Tuesday, beat arch-rivals Cardiff City 3-0 in the South Wales derby.
Goals from Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer and Wilfried Bony sent Swansea up to 10th in the table.
Palace climbed to 14th and West Ham to 15th but Sunderland’s relegation fears increased with a 2-0 home defeat by Hull City.
Sunderland were disadvantaged as early as the fourth minute when defender Wes Brown was sent off for the third time this season.
Despite their recent improvement Sunderland are fourth from bottom, one point and one place above West Brom who slipped into the drop zone with 23 points.
Cardiff are below them on 21 followed by bottom club Fulham (19) who visit Manchester United on Sunday.