LONDON (Reuters) – Manchester City’s fingertip hold on their Premier League title was further loosened after a demoralising 2-0 defeat at Everton on Saturday left them praying for a footballing miracle.
Leon Osman’s swerving 32nd-minute shot put Everton in front at a raucous Goodison Park and, even though the home side were reduced to 10 men when Steven Pienaar was red-carded for a rash tackle after 61 minutes, City could not reply.
Substitute Nikica Jelavic sealed victory in stoppage time after being set up by Marouane Fellaini to leave City facing a 15-point deficit with nine games left if runaway leaders Manchester United beat second from bottom Reading later on Saturday.
Everton’s win briefly took them above Arsenal into fifth spot in the battle for a top-four position but the Gunners replied with a 2-0 victory at Swansea City to close within two points of fourth-placed Chelsea who play West Ham United on Sunday.
Two late goals from Nacho Monreal and Gervinho sealed Arsenal’s victory.
Liverpool were beaten 3-1 at Southampton to virtually extinguish their top-four hopes and hand Saints a major boost in their bid to steer clear of trouble.
In a thrilling relegation scrap, Aston Villa clawed a vital 3-2 victory over bottom club Queens Park Rangers.
Christian Benteke scored the winner after 81 minutes to leave QPR seven points adrift of safety.
QPR, seeking a third consecutive league victory, led 1-0 through Jermaine Jenas and then equalised through Andros Townsend having gone 2-1 behind before Benteke grabbed his 13th league goal of the season.
One week after being booed and heckled by their fans in an embarrassing 3-0 FA Cup defeat at home to struggling Wigan Athletic, Everton produced a gutsy performance to remain in contention for a top-four finish.
"Last week was disappointing but we showed when we are at the races we are a match for any team," said Osman who is in England’s squad for this month’s World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro.
"It’s difficult to play with 10 men against any team, especially the champions, but we kept them at bay," he told Sky Sports.
Osman’s strike was a special one. Receiving the ball from Seamus Coleman 25 metres out, he lashed a shot that flew past England keeper Joe Hart.
Carlos Tevez went close to an equaliser with a shot just wide of the post but City missed the drive of Yaya Toure in midfield as Everton dominated.
City showed more desire after the break and were pressing hard for an equaliser when Pienaar raked his studs down the shin of Javi Garcia who had earlier squandered a close-range chance.
The inevitable red card merely raised Everton to greater efforts, with second-choice keeper Jan Mucha exemplifying their commitment with a superb double save from Tevez and James Milner.
City were denied a late penalty when Tevez’s shot was blocked by the arm of Fellaini, with the referee ruling it had been outside the box and awarding only a free kick.
Jelavic’s effort made it a dark day for City manager Roberto Mancini who declined to give his post-match television interview, instead sending out assistant David Platt.
"He’s angry and he’s taking stock of it," Platt said. "He wants to calm down rather than say anything that will get him in trouble.
"We got outworked by Everton but there is no doubt in my mind about the handball. It was three yards inside the area and though perhaps the performance didn’t deserve it, we could have got a bit more out of it if that decision had gone for us."
Southampton beat Liverpool thanks to goals from Morgan Schneiderlin, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez. Philippe Coutinho pulled one back for the seventh-placed visitors.
In the day’s other match Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion drew 0-0.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)
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