EYEING THE TOP FOUR:
Manchester United stayed in sixth place after beating Aston Villa, but they are now just six points behind fourth-placed Tottenham
AFP, LONDON and BIRMINGHAM, England
Declan Rice on Sunday scored on his return to West Ham United as Arsenal smashed David Moyes’ men 6-0 in a statement of intent in the English Premier League title race.
Bukayo Saka struck twice, while Leandro Trossard and centerbacks William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes were also on target in a ruthless display from Mikel Arteta’s men as they set a new club record for a Premier League away win.
Victory takes the Gunners back to within two points of Premier League leaders Liverpool and behind Manchester City only on goals scored.
“We were 4-0 up in the first half and we could have scored more,” Saka said. “We smelled blood today and went for the kill.”
The wheels of Arsenal’s challenge for a first league title in 20 years appeared to be coming off when they lost at home to the Hammers amid a run of one win in seven games either side of the new year.
However, they have bounced back emphatically since a two-week winter break to lay down the gauntlet to perennial title challengers City and Liverpool at the top of the table.
“I felt that the team had the right desire, straight after Liverpool, because it was something still in their tummy about what happened with West Ham at the Emirates and we wanted to put it right,” Arteta said. “If you want to be at the top, we’re going to have to be really consistent and play at that level, and we certainly did it today.”
West Ham had beaten the Gunners twice this season, also dumping them out of the EFL Cup in November last year, but they were outclassed to up the scrutiny on Moyes, who is out of contract at the end of the season.
“They started the game brilliantly from minute one, let’s not kid ourselves, it wasn’t just those [four goals in] 15 minutes,” Moyes said. “I’m not used to my team conceding the goals like we have been.”
In Birmingham, Scott McTominay kept alive Manchester United’s hopes of finishing in the top four as the midfielder’s late goal clinched a vital 2-1 win against Aston Villa.
Erik ten Hag’s side desperately needed a victory at Villa Park to close the gap in the race to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League.
United took an early lead through in-form Rasmus Hojlund, before Douglas Luiz leveled in the second half.
That set the stage for United’s second late winner against Villa this season as McTominay came off the bench to head home with just four minutes left.
United remain in sixth place after their fourth successive victory in all competitions, but they are now just five points behind fifth-placed Villa and six adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur.
“It is a massive win for us. We’ve got closer and that was the aim for today. The way we did it, I liked it,” Ten Hag said. “At 1-1 we had to fight back and we are really happy about that. It was so open, like a tennis match. It could go two ways, but we found the mentality and character to win.”
“Scott is great. He is an example for many players these days. He is always ready to come on and make a difference,” he said.
Villa boss Unai Emery said: “We were playing well against the mighty Manchester United, but we couldn’t score some clear chances.”
“The result is tough for us and difficult to accept, but that’s football. We played like we planned and deserved more,” he said.
While a top-four place is still a tough ask for United, they have at least given themselves a chance with their gritty success in the West Midlands.
Significantly, they are finally flourishing in attack after misfiring for much of the campaign.
Hojlund’s winner against Villa on Boxing Day has kick-started a run of six goals in seven games for the Denmark striker.
After failing to score in any of his first 14 games in the Premier League, the 21-year-old has become the second-youngest player to net in five successive appearances in the competition, behind Nicolas Anelka for Arsenal in 1998.
Hojlund now has 11 goals in 29 matches in all competitions in his debut season after signing from Atalanta BC.
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