LONDON (Reuters) – Leicester City were given a Premier League reality check when the unlikely leaders lost 1-0 at Liverpool on Saturday after Manchester United slumped to a third consecutive league defeat to pile more pressure on manager Louis van Gaal.
Christian Benteke’s second-half goal sealed the points at Anfield for Liverpool as Leicester suffered their first league defeat since September when they lost to Arsenal who could replace them at the top if they beat Southampton later.
Third-placed Manchester City closed in on Leicester by crushing lowly Sunderland 4-1 although they suffered a blow when captain Vincent Kompany limped off with a calf injury.
Tottenham Hotspur consolidated fourth place as Harry Kane scored twice in a 3-0 home victory over Norwich City.
Leicester, who failed to score for the first time this season and suffered only their second loss, have 38 points from 18 matches with Arsenal on 36, Manchester City 35 and Tottenham 32.
All eyes were on Manchester United’s under-pressure manager Louis van Gaal in the first game of the hectic holiday period and Stoke comfortably won 2-0 at the Britannia Stadium to condemn United to another damaging defeat.
Goals from Stoke forwards Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic left United down in sixth place after they lost four consecutive matches in a single season for the first time since 1961.
Van Gaal had left captain Wayne Rooney out of his starting line-up and by the time the England striker was introduced as a second-half substitute United were in deep trouble.
The Dutchman hinted that his days in the Old Trafford hot seat might be numbered.
“The club doesn’t have to fire or sack me — sometimes I do it by myself,” he told reporters.
Guus Hiddink’s second spell as Chelsea’s interim manager began with a 2-2 draw at home to Watford. Oscar wasted the chance to secure victory for the champions when he missed a late penalty at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea remained in 15th place.
Spain striker Diego Costa scored twice for Chelsea but Watford had led 2-1 through Troy Deeney’s first-half penalty and Odion Ighalo’s deflected shot in the 56th minute.
Oscar’s 80th-minute blunder meant Chelsea remained just two points above the relegation zone with a trip to Manchester United to come on Monday.
Leicester topped the Christmas standings, a year after being rooted to the bottom, but they were not at their best against a Liverpool side who had gone four matches without a win.
Benteke struck in the 63rd minute, steering in Roberto Firmino’s pull-back.
“We started too late to play our football,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri told Sky Sports. “Now we have to re-start.”
Crystal Palace drew 0-0 with Bournemouth, moving above Manchester United into fifth spot.
Bottom club Aston Villa drew 1-1 at home to West Ham United thanks to Jordan Ayew’s penalty, leaving manager Remi Garde still awaiting a first win since taking over from Tim Sherwood.
Managerless Swansea City won for the first time since October, beating West Bromwich Albion 1-0 to climb out of the relegation zone above Norwich and Newcastle United.
Newcastle face Everton later.
By Martyn Herman
(Editing by Ed Osmond)