Aston Villa’s head coach Steven Gerrard shouts to his players from the sidelines during the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Aston Villa at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
By MATTIAS KAREN – Japan Today
The English Premier League’s top three kept up the furious pace of their title race by picking up hard-fought wins on Saturday, although all three needed second-half penalties to do so.
Manchester City maintained its one-point lead after Raheem Sterling’s 100th league goal secured a 1-0 home win over Wolverhampton in the early kickoff, and chasing duo Liverpool and Chelsea responded with slim victories of their own.
Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard’s return to Anfield nearly dealt a damaging blow to Liverpool’s title hopes but Mohamed Salah’s penalty in the 67th minute secured a 1-0 win for the Reds after goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez frustrated the hosts for much of the game.
At Stamford Bridge, Jorginho had to convert two spot kicks — the second in the fourth minute of stoppage time — for Chelsea to beat Leeds 3-2. His first penalty in the 58th put Chelsea 2-1 up but Joe Gelhardt equalized in the 83rd.
Liverpool remained in second place with Chelsea another point back in third.
City was perhaps a bit fortunate to come away with a sixth straight league win after Pep Guardiola’s team was awarded a disputed spot kick for handball when Joao Moutinho blocked a cross from Bernardo Silva with his arm outstretched. Wolves argued the ball hit his armpit, but the decision was upheld after a VAR review.
Sterling calmly converted the penalty straight down the middle.
“It’s a lovely achievement,” Sterling said about joining the 100-goal club. “Some fantastic players have been in there. I’m really honored to be in it now.”
Manchester United also needed a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo to beat last-placed Norwich 1-0 and move into fifth place. Arsenal bounced back from two straight losses by beating Southampton 3-0 at home.
Gerrard, the long-time Liverpool captain, was back at his boyhood club in a professional capacity for the first time since leaving in 2015 and was given a standing ovation when he entered the field for the game.
“It was always going to be an emotional one. Everyone on the outside can understand that,” Gerrard said. “I very much appreciate the support and the bond I still have with Liverpool fans, but I think that’s normal because I had so many years here.”
Gerrard’s defensive tactics nearly paid off as Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez frustrated Liverpool until Tyrone Mings pulled down Salah in the 67th minute, and the Egypt forward converted his 15th consecutive successful penalty.
Villa appealed for a late penalty of their own when Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson flapped at a loose ball after a mix-up with Joel Matip and appeared to bring down Danny Ings, but the referee waved play on.
There were three penalties in total at Stamford Bridge, as Raphinha put Leeds ahead from the spot in the first half. Mason Mount leveled for Chelsea before Raphinha conceded the hosts’ first penalty by scything down Toni Rudiger.
Leeds thought it earned a point after teenage forward Joe Gelhardt climbed off the bench to level at 2-2 in the 83rd minute but Rudiger then won Chelsea’s second penalty in injury time, when fouled by Mateusz Klich.
“We deserved to win but of course it’s lucky when you have a late goal in (injury) time,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said. “But coming back twice is very impressive and I’m very happy we turned things around.”
ARSENAL DROPS AUBA
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta dropped captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang because of a “disciplinary breach” and still saw his team score three goals for the first time in seven league games.
Martin Odegaard netted for a third straight game, after Alexandre Lacazette opened the scoring by finishing off a flowing team move in the 21st minute. Defender Gabriel headed home the third from a corner in the second half.
Ralf Rangnick earned a second straight win as United’s interim manager thanks to Ronaldo’s penalty in the 75th minute. It was Ronaldo’s 13th goal of the season and put United in fifth place, level on points with fourth-placed West Ham, which visits Burnley on Sunday. Arsenal is a point further back in sixth.