- Premier League round-up
Man Utd hands on the title as Villa win relegation thriller
A potentially decisive day in the Premier League saw massive results at the top and bottom of the table, as Manchester United effectively sealed their 20th Premier League title after City's defeat at Everton, while struggling Aston Villa gave themselves breathing room with a dramatic triumph over relegation rivals QPR.
Elsewhere, Arsenal took the momentum from their valiant midweek Champions League effort to enhance their chances of qualifying for next year's competition with an away win over Swansea, but Liverpool could not match that feat as they were comprehensively beaten by Southampton at St Mary's - as the Saints moved seven points from the drop zone.
Manchester United need 13 points from their remaining nine games after they responded to a tough couple of weeks with a 1-0 triumph over Reading at Old Trafford. After losing to Real Madrid in the Champions League and throwing away a two-goal lead against Chelsea in the FA Cup, United were grateful for a deflected Wayne Rooney goal upon their return to league competition.
Already well aware of City's loss at Everton, Sir Alex Ferguson knew he could establish a 15-point gap at the top with victory over the Royals. Robin van Persie and Rooney were played in tandem up front, and after a quiet start the latter opened the scoring with the aid of a giant deflection off Alex Pearce.
Hal Robson-Kanu threatened an immediate equaliser for Reading when he bent a 25-yarder agonisingly wide of the far post with David De Gea beaten, and the visitors put up an admirable fight throughout. United, who barely moved out of second gear, created few clear chances with Van Persie unusually quiet, but can tick off one more game en route to the title.
Manchester City had already effectively handed their neighbours the title when losing the early kick-off 2-0 at 10-man Everton. Leon Osman's first-half thunderbolt and a late curler from Nikica Jelavic made the difference for the home side.
Osman beat Joe Hart with a wonderful first-time strike from 25 yards after 32 minutes to make the most of Everton's early control of the contest, and City failed to find a reply even after Steven Pienaar was dismissed with nearly 30 minutes remaining for a second bookable offence.
Deep into injury-time Hart was beaten again, this time by Jelavic's measured strike - which was perhaps aided slightly by a deflection, completing a 2-0 victory that was celebrated wildly by the home support. Victory lifts Everton sixth - four points behind Chelsea and three clear of rivals Liverpool with a game in hand.
One of the most important games of the season also proved to be one of the most dramatic, as Aston Villa claimed a hugely significant 3-2 victory over QPR thanks to Christian Benteke's late finish.
QPR, looking for a third successive win that would have brought Harry Redknapp's side within one point of Villa in 17th, led early on through Jermaine Jenas, before Gabriel Agbonlahor headed an equaliser shortly before half-time to settle some of the nerves at Villa Park.
Andreas Weimann subsequently put the Villans ahead to begin edging his side away from the dogfight at the bottom of the table, before Andros Townsend beat Brad Guzan to set up a tense final 20 minutes. But it was Villa who got the winner, Benteke sending the crowd into rapture with an emphatic left-foot finish from close range after he was left unmarked in the box.
Redknapp threw five players up front for his side in the dying stages as he sought something from a game they could barely afford to lose. It was a tactic that looked like striking gold when Townsend unleashed a long range effort with the last kick of the game but, with Guzan helpless, the shot flew agonisingly wide as Villa escaped with three priceless points.
After going out of the Champions League - but not without a fight - to Bayern Munich on Wednesday, Arsenal greatly improved their hopes of qualifying for the lucrative competition next season with a hard-fought 2-0 away victory over Swansea. Nacho Monreal - with his first goal for the Gunners - and Gervinho grabbed the two strikes for Arsene Wenger's side, as they moved within two points of Chelsea (who play on Sunday) in the battle for fourth.
Both sides had plenty of chances in the first half, but neither could quite manage to find the target. After being left out of the starting XI to face Bayern in midweek, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in and managed to hit the woodwork twice for his team, while at the other end Michu was once again his side's main threat - firing an effort narrowly wide.
The second half saw more of the same, as Arsenal fared well in possession but struggled to turn that into clear-cut openings or shots on goal. That changed from perhaps the most unlikely of sources, as Monreal showed his understanding with Santi Cazorla - perhaps a remnant of their time together at Malaga - to latch onto a pass and hit a low drive beyond Michel Vorm from ten yards.
Swansea duly pushed for an equaliser but instead they saw the game killed off, Aaron Ramsey finding Gervinho unmarked in the box with little time left on the clock as the Ivory Coast international made no mistake with the finish.
Elsewhere, Liverpool look unlikely to play in European competition next season, as they were beaten 3-1 by a Southampton side that will now be increasingly confident of avoiding relegation.
Goals from Morgan Schneiderlin, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez proved the difference in an impressive Saints performance, with Philippe Coutinho getting the consolation for a defensively-suspect Reds side.
Liverpool were woeful in the first half, and were perhaps lucky to go in to the break only one goal in arrears. Southampton created numerous clear-cut openings but failed to take full advantage - with their two scoring efforts coming from Schneiderlin's astute header and Lambert's wickedly-deflected free-kick.
The latter trickled in after hitting Daniel Sturridge as he shied away from the ball while standing in the wall, but the striker made something approaching amends for that lack of courage on the stroke of half-time, as his turn and shot was parried away only into the path of Coutinho, who made no mistake with his finish.
Rodgers will likely have questions to ask of his defence for the Saints' third goal, which effectively killed off the contest. There appeared to be little real danger when Rodriguez picked up the ball at halfway in the second half but, after evading Lucas and Martin Skrtel without receiving so much as a cursory challenge from either, the attacker was able to unleash a strike on goal that, after Brad Jones could only parry it out, the ex-Burnley man was able to run onto again and turn home.
Finally, at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke and West Brom did not trouble the scorers as they ended locked in a 0-0 draw. Peter Crouch and Marc Wilson passed up some of the best chances Stoke created during the contest, while Romelu Lukaku saw one of the Baggies' few threatening shots on goal calmly dealt with by Asmir Begovic.