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Ruthless Chelsea and Man City march on

LONDON: Chelsea and Manchester City tightened their stranglehold on the Premier League title race on Saturday, recording victories over struggling clubs to stretch further clear of their increasingly forlorn pursuers.

Normal service was resumed at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea maintained their three-point lead over City at the top with goals from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa sinking 10-man Hull City 2-0.

Champions City maintained their ever more convincing chase, sealing their fifth successive league win at bottom club Leicester City 1-0 courtesy of a 40th-minute goal from the evergreen Frank Lampard.

City’s delight, though, was tempered by the likelihood of another spell on the sidelines for captain Vincent Kompany who, on his return after a three-game absence with a hamstring problem, limped off again with the same trouble.

As Arsenal completed a turbulent week with doubles from Olivier Giroud and birthday boy Santi Cazorla inspiring a 4-1 rout of Newcastle, fourth-placed West Ham’s progress was checked by a 1-1 draw at Sunderland and Southampton lost 1-0 to an Ashley Barnes goal at Burnley.

It all left the chasing pack, headed by Manchester United and West Ham, 11 points behind Chelsea and eight adrift of the champions and put pressure on Louis van Gaal’s third-placed United before their match against Liverpool on Sunday.

Chelsea, smarting about their first defeat of the season at Newcastle last weekend, responded with a performance which made their ‘Special One’ manager Jose Mourinho sniff: “It was not a special performance. Just a good enough performance.”

Much more had been expected when Hazard headed home Oscar’s seventh minute cross but Chelsea were initially sloppy and Steve Bruce ended up unhappy that Gary Cahill, already on a yellow card, was not sent off after what the Hull manager felt was a blatant dive.

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After Tom Huddlestone was dismissed for a nasty second half stamp on Filipe Luis, Costa scored his 12th league goal of the season from a Hazard assist after 68 minutes.

Already without Sergio Aguero, Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini had to blood 18-year-old Jose Pozo, the boy acclaimed as the ‘Mini Messi’, after Edin Dzeko was injured in the warm-up.

Yet it was still left to the remarkable Lampard to make the breakthrough with a typical, beautifully-timed run into the box to sidefoot home after fine work from Samir Nasri.

The 36-year-old’s latest crucial intervention will have raised eyebrows among his old Chelsea disciples as Lampard’s 175th goal took him to fourth equal on the all-time list of Premier League scorers, an astonishing achievement for a midfielder.

Arsenal, criticised mercilessly after losing at Stoke, looked buoyant after their midweek Champions League trouncing of Galatasaray, stayed sixth with two lovely goals from Giroud after 15 and 58 minutes, and a couple from Cazorla after 54 and 88.

The Spaniard’s late ‘Panenka’ penalty was a cheeky way to mark his 30th birthday and Ayoze Perez’s 63rd minute consolation for Newcastle could hardly mask Arsenal’s supremacy at an Emirates Stadium in festive mood.

The home crowd, who have been growing restless with their manager, now serenaded him with “There’s only one Arsene Wenger” as they celebrated moving to within two points of Manchester United and West Ham.

The Hammers’ boss Sam Allardyce, though, was hardly full of Christmas cheer after Jordi Gomez put Sunderland ahead with a 22nd minute penalty.

Adamant that Adam Johnson had dived to earn the spot kick, Allardyce told the BBC: “It was not a penalty. It was given by the assistant referee and he got it horribly wrong.”

Even though Stewart Downing equalised seven minutes later, the Hammers rued a late miss from Andy Carroll.

After a tremendous start to the season, Southampton’s woes continued with a fourth consecutive defeat. They paid the price after Tom Heaton saved Dusan Tadic’s penalty on the hour and Burnley jumped out of the bottom three with Barnes’s winner. (Reuters)

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