Liverpool's title hopes suffered a crushing setback as Rafael Benitez's men slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Middlesbrough. Three days after beating Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, Liverpool were brought back down to earth with a painful bump by opponents who had not won a league match since 9 November.
The defeat allowed Chelsea, who secured a last-gasp 2-1 win over Wigan Athletic, to reclaim second place in the table courtesy of their superior goal difference. But the real winners were champions Manchester United, who now stand seven points clear of both of their closest rivals with a game in hand. Benitez came close to conceding that any chance of catching United had gone.
"Before the game it was very difficult, now it will be more difficult," he said. "You have to take your chances if you want to win these games. The first 30 minutes we had five chances and we didn't score a goal. It has been a problem during the season and today has been the same."
United did not have a league game at the weekend because of tomorrow's League Cup final with Tottenham, in which Sir Alex Ferguson's side will attempt to claim their second trophy of the season, following their triumph in the FIFA World Club Championship Japan 2008™ in December.
The defeat at Middlesbrough means Liverpool have now won just two of their last seven league matches and a bitterly disappointing afternoon was compounded by the sight of skipper Steven Gerrard, who made his first start in over three weeks, limping off midway through the second half. Gerrard's influence had helped the visitors dominate the opening stages at the Riverside, but they found themselves behind just after the half-hour mark when Alonso deflected a Stewart Downing corner into his own net. Boro effectively ended the match as a contest when Turkey star Tuncay Sanli converted Jeremie Aliadiere's cutback in the 63rd minute.
Arsenal come up empty
Arsenal were jeered off the pitch by their own supporters after a 0-0 draw at home to Fulham in their fifth straight draw in the league and fourth consecutive goalless stalemate. If Aston Villa can beat relegation-threatened Stoke tomorrow, the Gunners will find themselves eight points adrift of a top four finish with only 11 games left to close the gap. "We dropped two points we basically couldn't afford to drop today," acknowledged Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Chelsea rally for the win
Chelsea looked to have blown their chance of moving back into second place when Olivier Kapo claimed an 82nd-minute equaliser for Wigan. But the resilience that appears to have been restored by the arrival of temporary manager Guus Hiddink was again in evidence as Frank Lampard popped up in the box to head in a stoppage time winner.
Chelsea had been far from convincing early on, but they seized control of the match midway through the opening period. Emmerson Boyce's clearance of a Lampard cross only made it as far as the edge of the box, from where John Terry found the net with a stunning volley. Wigan could easily have been ahead at that stage, with Petr Cech saving from Paul Scharner at point-blank range and both Terry and Ashley Cole clearing balls off the line.