Gunners hang on, drop looms for duo
Arsenal leapt back above Chelsea into third spot on Saturday but the Champions League challenge of Everton is all but over after they fell prey to Paolo Di Canio's Black Cats. At the bottom, QPR and Reading look doomed after they lost to fellow strugglers Stoke and Norwich respectively, while Wigan also find themselves falling into deeper trouble.
Having seen Chelsea leave Fulham with a 3-0 win in midweek, Arsenal knew they too had to come away from Craven Cottage with a positive result, and after an early red card for Steve Sidwell the Gunners limped to a 1-0 triumph. A first-half goal from Per Mertesacker earned Arsene Wenger's men a fifth win in their last six league outings, lifting them five points clear of Tottenham, although Olivier Giroud was also sent off late on.
Wenger made a tough call prior to kick-off, selecting Tomas Rosicky ahead of Jack Wilshere in midfield, but Arsenal had the ball in the net after only two minutes - rightly flagged offside against Theo Walcott.
The Gunners' task then became significantly easier when Sidwell - just back from suspension - lunged in on Mikel Arteta's standing leg to receive a red card in the 12th minute. Not that the dismissal made an immediate impact, with Dimitar Berbatov wasting a glorious chance for Fulham moments later.
Arsenal's best opportunity of the first 40 minutes came when Giroud drove low across Mark Schwarzer only to see the ball rebound off the far post. However, a breakthrough arrived on the stroke of half-time when Laurent Koscielny nodded across goal for Mertesacker to touch home from close range.
Wenger might have been disappointed that his men failed to kick on and make the game comfortable in the second half, with Fulham threatening an equaliser when Stanislav Manolev found the net 14 minutes from time - only to be correctly judged offside.
Giroud was then harshly dismissed in the final minute of normal time when he rolled his foot over the top of the ball, but Arsenal's European ambitions remain on track.
Everton had the chance to move above Spurs into fifth - within two points of fourth-placed Chelsea - with victory at Sunderland, but Di Canio's men have been revived under his guidance and claimed a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light. Stephane Sessegnon helped the Black Cats move six points clear of the bottom three, while Everton will surely have to realign their targets to a Europa League spot.
A buoyant atmosphere greeted Di Canio for his first home game in charge, and the noise only rose when Sessegnon sent a shot swerving out of Tim Howard's reach moments before half-time.
David Moyes threw on Nikica Jelavic at half-time in attempt to get back into the game, but Sunderland clung on despite the best efforts of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar.
At the bottom of the table, QPR are almost certainly going to be relegated after Stoke won 2-0 to claim their first win since February 9 at Loftus Road. Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters were on the scoresheet to lift Stoke six points clear of safety, while QPR remain ten adrift with only 12 points to play for.
Former QPR man Crouch got the opener when he converted from close range after Cameron Jerome's cutback. Prior to that moment Harry Redknapp thought Adel Taarabt had won a penalty but referee Chris Foy rightly only awarded a free-kick on the edge of the area.
Redknapp took off Taarabt and Andros Townsend in an attempt to breathe life into his team, but they faded as an attacking threat after the introductions of Jamie Mackie and Jay Bothroyd. The game was sealed by Walters' 77th-minute penalty, awarded for a Clint Hill tug on Crouch.
Wigan failed to lift themselves out of trouble as the FA Cup finalists went down 2-0 at West Ham. Matt Jarvis and Kevin Nolan helped the Hammers into the top half of the table.
Jarvis initially appeared to have played the role of creator as Nolan wheeled away claiming the opener, but upon review it seemed the former Wolves man's cross went in without a touch from his colleague.
Roberto Martinez will be left frustrated after his team were again the better side - as they were at Manchester City in midweek - but games are running out for the Latics to turn performances into goals after Nolan this time claimed his 100th career goal with ten minutes remaining.
Bottom club Reading will surely be planning for life in the Championship next year after they lost 2-1 to Norwich at Carrow Road. Like QPR, the result leaves the Royals open to relegation if Aston Villa win their next fixture.
Norwich, who stretch their cushion to seven points, scored twice in two second-half minutes not long after half-time, Ryan Bennett netting the first before Elliott Bennett capitalised on Alex McCarthy's misjudgement for the second. Reading found a 72nd-minute reply through Garath McClearly, but they finished the game with nothing.
Newcastle will hope not to be dragged into trouble after they drew with West Brom 1-1 at the Hawthorns. Yoan Gouffran's strike was cancelled out by Billy Jones as the Magpies moved six points clear of the bottom three with four games left to play.
Gouffran scored with the game's first chance after eight minutes, heading home Papiss Cisse's cross to answer Alan Shearer's criticism of the club's French imports following the derby loss to Sunderland. However, Jones equalised midway through the second half.
Elsewhere, Swansea and Southampton drew 0-0 at the Liberty Stadium in a relatively meaningless game for both teams. Saints should be safe on 39 points, and arguably should have won it in the first half through Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana.