MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – Normalcy was restored in the most unpredictable of Premier League seasons as Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United won to kick off 2016, with two of English soccer’s biggest stars grabbing winners after lean spells.
But victory didn’t come easy for the three heavyweights as the hectic festive schedule came to an end on Saturday.
Arsenal dispensed with its typically silky style and ground out a 1-0 win over Newcastle, through a goal from defender Laurent Koscielny, to move two points clear at the top.
City scored twice in the final eight minutes in coming from behind to beat Watford 2-1, clinching a first away win since September. Sergio Aguero, last season’s top scorer and the most lethal striker in the league, scored the winner with his first goal since Nov. 21.
That was the date of Man United’s last league win before a 2-1 victory over Swansea, sealed by a moment of brilliance by Wayne Rooney. The England captain flicked in a deft finish for his first United goal in two months, which put him second outright in the all-time scoring lists at United (238) and in the league (188).
“It is amazing,” United manager Louis van Gaal said, “and that at the age of 30.”
Second-place Leicester City failed to keep pace with Arsenal after being held to 0-0 at home by 10-man Bournemouth and is now without a win in three games, fulfilling many pundits’ predictions that its surprisingly strong start to the season wouldn’t last. Riyad Mahrez missed a penalty for Leicester, which is a point ahead of City.
United remained in fifth place while West Ham rose to sixth by beating Liverpool 2-0. Norwich beat Southampton 1-0. West Bromwich Albion overcame Stoke 2-1, and Sunderland won 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, which looks doomed with just eight points from 20 games to lie 11 points adrift of safety.
At Emirates Stadium, Koscielny scored the decisive goal for Arsenal, pouncing after Olivier Giroud headed back a corner from Mesut Ozil, but goalkeeper Petr Cech was the player to earn the most praise after the match for making two outstanding saves to deny Georginio Wijnaldum.
“He is calm and never panics. We needed that,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said of Cech.
Arsenal hasn’t won the Premier League since 2004.
Watford went ahead against City when left back Aleksandar Kolarov diverted Ben Watson’s corner into his own net after halftime. Yaya Toure equalized in the 82nd with a superb finish from Kolarov’s corner, then Aguero’s header followed two minutes later.
“We have to build on this,” City goalkeeper Joe Hart. “It’s not championship-winning form but we’re somehow still in it.”
United ended an eight-game winless run — its longest in 26 years — as Anthony Martial put United ahead after halftime, then set up Rooney for the flicked winner off his left heel.
“It was his left foot behind his right foot, you cannot imagine what a goal that is,” van Gaal said of his captain’s strike.