LONDON: A Roberto Firmino hat-trick proved the highlight of Liverpool’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal as the Premier League leaders opened a nine-point gap over Tottenham Hotspur, who lost 3-1 to Wolverhampton Wanderers at Wembley.
With third-placed Manchester City playing Southampton on Sunday, Liverpool capped an astonishing month with their ninth successive league victory to leave manager Juergen Klopp conceding that he “had nothing to moan about”.
Struggling Cardiff City and Fulham bolstered their survival chances with added-time goals in 1-0 wins at Leicester City and home to Huddersfield Town respectively.
Brighton & Hove Albion beat Everton by the same score and Watford equalised late to draw 1-1 with Newcastle United.
Anfield has become such a fortress that even the unexpected setback of Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ early goal did not knock Liverpool off their stride.
Within minutes, Brazilian Firmino hit them with a scoring one-two — his second goal a brilliant solo effort — with a further strike from Sadio Mane and a penalty from Mohamed Salah following before halftime.
Firmino rounded off the scoring with another spot kick as Liverpool, who next travel to Manchester City on Thursday, cruised home to leave no one in doubt as to their title credentials.
“[Manchester City] is a huge one,” said Liverpool full back Andy Robertson.
“But in December we’ve knocked the games off one by one and we’ve now got a healthy lead. We look forward to it.”
Tottenham’s day could hardly have started better with England’s Harry Kane marking his award of an MBE for services to sport in the New Year Honours list with a stunning left-foot strike that looked likely to kick off another goalfest.
But the inconsistent visitors from the Midlands refused to roll over and hit the home side with three goals in 18 second-half minutes through Wily Boly, Raul Jimenez and Helder Costa as Wembley was silenced, along with talk of Tottenham’s title challenge.
“We have achieved something very special in getting to the Premier League and it has been a very special year,” said delighted Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo.
“We had a lot of belief after the equaliser, I would have said a draw was a good result, but I cannot control the emotions of the boys if they see space in front of them.”
The drama came even later at Fulham where Aleksandar Mitrovic scored the winner in stoppage time to frustrate their relegation rivals Huddersfield.
Fulham’s joy was all the greater because they had earlier missed a penalty amid extraordinary scenes after their players tried to take the ball off Aboubakar Kamara as he stepped up to take the spot kick.
His team mates wanted Mitrovic to take the penalty but Kamara refused, disobeying the orders of Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri, only to look deeply embarrassed seconds later when his effort was saved by Jonas Lossl.
Ranieri was not amused: “I said to Aboubakar Kamara to leave the ball to Aleksandar Mitrovic, he is the man who shoots the penalties. It is unbelievable, he did not respect me, the club, the team and crowd. I spoke with him, it is not right.
“I want to kill him, that is normal when one man takes a ball, only because he scored the last penalty (against Manchester United). It should be Mitrovic, that is it.”
At Leicester, Cardiff’s Neil Etheridge saved James Maddison’s 75th minute penalty to set up a victory secured by Victor Camarasa’s stunning stoppage time strike for the Welsh side, who are now four points above the drop zone.
Brighton finish the year comfortably in mid-table after Juergen Locadia’s second-half goal was enough to see off Everton.
At Vicarage Road, the sought-after substitute Abdoulaye Doucoure scored Watford’s equaliser before then wasting a late chance as the home side almost secured a comeback win against Newcastle.