LONDON—Manchester United blew open the Premier League title race by slumping to a surprise 1-0 loss at lowly Wigan on Wednesday, allowing second-place Manchester City to close the gap to five points with a 4-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
United delivered one of its worst displays of the season and was deservedly sunk by Shaun Maloney’s fine curling shot in the 50th minute, which inflicted the champions’ first league loss since Jan. 4 and only their fourth of the campaign.
City capitalized fully by easing past West Brom thanks to Sergio Aguero’s double and goals by Carlos Tevez—on his first start since returning from his lengthy spell away from the club—and David Silva.
The two Manchester clubs have five matches left—and still have to meet at City’s Etihad Stadium on April 30—although City manager Roberto Mancini believes his side has left it too late.
“The title race is finished because United is a fantastic team and they have a fantastic spirit. I think five points is too much,” Mancini said.
Arsenal beat 10-man Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-0 to go five points clear of north London rival Tottenham and Newcastle in third, making Arsene Wenger’s side favorite to clinch the final automatic Champions League spot.
Only six weeks ago, Arsenal was 10 points behind Spurs.
“It was overall a fantastic win. I’m very happy to be in this position but also very cautious as some teams were in the position we are in now before,” Wenger said.
Robin van Persie converted a cheeky chipped penalty in the ninth after Sebastien Bassong was sent off for hauling down Theo Walcott, who scored Arsenal’s second two minutes later. The visitors only added one more goal, through Yossi Benayoun in the 69th, despite their numerical advantage.
In the other match, Queens Park Rangers beat Swansea 3-0 to climb out of the relegation zone along with Wigan, with Bolton and Blackburn dropping into the bottom three. Wolves look doomed, nine points adrift of safety after seven straight losses.
If results had gone their way, United could have been celebrating a 20th league title this weekend. Instead, Alex Ferguson’s side injected some drama into the run-in by falling to a first ever loss to Wigan, which started the game in next-to-last place.
United was strangely flat, lacking in energy and sloppy in possession, with Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi barely troubled.
“We were poor, we only had one shot on target and we were second to every ball,” Ferguson said. “You wish the lead was better but considering where we were a few months ago, you have to take it.”
Wayne Rooney’s night was ended early by Ferguson when the England striker was hauled off in the 65th minute, soon after he was beaten in the buildup to Maloney’s superb goal.
After exchanging passes with Jean Beausejour at a short corner, Maloney skipped around Rooney and curled a delightful shot beyond United goalkeeper David de Gea.
Wigan was unfortunate not to be ahead by then, with Victor Moses having a headed goal from a corner ruled out after the assistant referee spotted Gary Caldwell impeding De Gea next to the goalline.
It was the first time Wigan had avoided defeat in 15 matches against United, lifting Roberto Martinez’s team out of the relegation zone for the first time since October.
United, on the other hand, has to lift itself for a home match against struggling Aston Villa on Sunday. By then, City may have reduced the gap to two points as it plays Norwich on Saturday.
With Tevez starting in place of the suspended Mario Balotelli—and scoring for the first time since May—City rediscovered its attacking fluency at just the right time.
Tevez’s goal came in the 61st minute, tucking home Aguero’s cutback following Samir Nasri’s pass.
Aguero had put City 2-0 up by then with goals in the sixth and 54th minutes—taking his tally for the campaign to 19—with Silva adding a fourth with a neat chip in the 64th.
“Vintage performance tonight,” City captain Vincent Kompany tweeted.
The result ended City’s three-game winless run.
Van Persie’s goal was his league-leading 27th of the campaign and 45th in his last 50 Premier League appearances. It also means he has scored against 17 different league clubs this season, equaling the record previously set by Andy Cole, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright.