Rooney inspires Man Utd, Chelsea held
Wayne Rooney netted a second-half hat-trick to lift Manchester United to a 4-2 win at West Ham United, while Chelsea's title hopes were dented by a 1-1 draw at Stoke City.
After a lacklustre first half, the leaders looked in real trouble two goals behind but Rooney produced a virtuoso display, netting his 100th Premier League goal in the process, to keep his side in charge in the title race.
The Hammers were excellent in the first half and led at the break through two Mark Noble penalties, the first following a Patrice Evra handball and the second after Nemanja Vidic had felled Carlton Cole on the edge of the box.
Sir Alex Ferguson threw on Javier Hernandez at the interval and his appearance pepped up United's attack. The threat was there long before Rooney cut the deficit on 65 minutes with a stunning free kick.
Rooney showed his class is not restricted to set-pieces as he collected a pass on the edge of the box, took the ball in his stride and slotted beyond Robert Green.
The comeback was capped when United won a contentious penalty of their own, which Rooney stroked home to secured the three points. West Ham wilted in the face of the Red Devils onslaught and some sloppy defending allowed Hernandez to slide home a cross-shot from Ryan Giggs.
United were further boosted by the fact that Arsenal could not manage to score against Blackburn, in a 0-0 draw at the Emirates.
The Gunners now trail by seven points with a game in hand, but have only themselves to blame after spurning numerous chances. Jack Wilshere sidefooted wide from seven yards out, while Paul Robinson produced a fine save from Nicklas Bendtner, but even after Stephen N'zonzi was sent off for a two footed lunge on Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal still could not score.
Meanwhile, Chelsea's chances of retaining the Premier League crown are hanging by a thread after a 1-1 draw at Stoke.
Jonathan Walters handed the hosts a dream start after eight minutes, outmuscling David Luiz before deceiving Michael Essien in the area and driving past Petr Cech, but the early setback only served to galvanise Chelsea. After creating a rash of chances, they eventually pulled level on 33 minutes, Didier Drogba combining with Nicolas Anelka before nodding home from the penalty spot.
Despite the introduction of Fernando Torres early in the second half, it was Stoke who looked the more likely until the final ten minutes, when Chelsea rattled the crossbar via Drogba. Stoke had already hit the woodwork twice themselves and had a header cleared off the line.
West Brom boss Roy Hodgson landed a blow on his former club as Liverpool were beaten 2-1 at the Hawthorns. The visitors were fortunate to enter the dressing room on level terms at half-time, having endured a testing opening period. Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger both limped out of the action, and the Reds failed to settle after the subsequent tactical reshuffle, with Pepe Reina forced to bail them out on several occasions.
But, against the run of play, it was Liverpool who moved into the lead shortly after the interval - Martin Skrtel took advantage of the Baggies' set-piece woes to unleash an unstoppable header. Hodgson's frustration was short-lived, however, as Chris Brunt equalised from the penalty spot on 62 minutes following a foul on Peter Odemwingie.
And it was another penalty that earned West Brom all three points, with Brunt again converting following Reina's foul on Odemwingie, who had bamboozled Soti Kyrgiakos earlier in the move.
The pressure on Gerard Houllier was eased as Aston Villa claimed a creditable 2-2 draw against Everton in a dramatic clash at Goodison Park.
An injury-ravaged Toffees side took a deserved lead five minutes before the break through Leon Osman, who made no mistake from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov's through ball after the Russian had robbed Kyle Walker.
Under-fire Houllier, who has been plagued by rumours of dressing room unrest, was boosted on 47 minutes as Darren Bent, his £24 million January signing, thumped the ball into the top of the net after meeting Stewart Downing's cross on the full. And it was Bent who edged Villa into the lead twenty minutes later in controversial circumstances, slotting home just seconds after Everton felt Jermaine Beckford's drive had crossed the line at the other end.
But that was not the end of the drama, as Everton were awarded a contentious penalty on 83 minutes, converted by Leighton Baines, following a collision between Phil Jagielka and Jean Makoun.
Birmingham City gained revenge for their FA Cup quarter-final defeat by snatching a 2-1 home win over Bolton Wanderers.
Kevin Phillips rewarded Alex McLeish's decision to hand him a rare start by rifling in on four minutes after a corner was half-cleared into his path. That strike laid the platform for a prolonged spell of Birmingham dominance - but it wasn't until the 60th minute that they doubled their lead, with Craig Gardner slamming home from the edge of the box after exchanging passes with Cameron Jerome.
Johan Elmander ensured a nervy finish by halving the deficit with 20 minutes remaining, with the Swede notching his first Premier League strike since Boxing Day after getting on the end of Kevin Davies' knockdown, but Blues held on.
Newcastle moved just one point away from the coveted 40 mark with a comprehensive 4-1 win over Wolves at St James' Park. Following a couple of near-misses, Kevin Nolan put the Magpies ahead after 22 minutes, connecting with a Shola Ameobi flick for his 12th league goal of the season, before Ameobi got himself on the scoresheet just before the interval, soaring highest to meet Peter Lovenkrands' centre.
Wolves' hopes of a comeback were crushed five minutes after the break when Lovenkrands rattled in his third of the season, before Jonas Gutierrez added a fourth after Sylvan Ebanks-Blake's consolation.
At the DW Stadium, Wigan and Tottenham Hotspur were forced to settle for a point after a 0-0 draw.
Roman Pavyluchenko's unsuccessful claim for a penalty was the most notable incident of a forgettable first 45, in which Spurs appeared guilty of having one eye on their midweek clash with Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Tottenham were similarly lacklustre in the second half, with their midfield looking shorn of invention in the absence of Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale - but Peter Crouch did come close to snatching all three points when he sent a header narrowly over the top.