Leicester City were given a reality check when the unlikely leaders lost 1-0 at Liverpool on Saturday while Manchester United slumped to a third straight Premier League defeat to pile the pressure on Louis van Gaal.
Arsenal wasted a Boxing Day opportunity to knock Leicester off the top of the table when they were out-thought, outmuscled and outplayed as Shane Long scored twice in a shock 4-0 romp for mid-table Southampton.
Christian Benteke’s second-half goal sealed the points at Anfield as Leicester were handed their first league defeat since September, and only their second of the season.
Manchester City, in third place, crushed lowly Sunderland 4-1 but suffered a blow when captain Vincent Kompany limped off with a calf injury, having come on as a substitute following an eight-match absence.
Tottenham Hotspur consolidated fourth spot as Harry Kane netted twice in a 3-0 home victory over Norwich City to take his league tally for the calendar year to 27, a club record.
Leicester, who failed to score for the first time this season, have 38 points from 18 matches with Arsenal on 36, Manchester City 35 and Tottenham 32.
All eyes were on United manager Van Gaal in the first game of a hectic holiday period and mid-table Stoke won 2-0 at the Britannia Stadium.
Goals from forwards Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic left United in sixth place as they lost four consecutive matches in all competitions in a single season for the first time since 1961.
Van Gaal left out captain Wayne Rooney for tactical reasons and by the time the England striker was introduced as a second-half substitute, United were already in deep trouble.
The frosty Dutchman hinted later his days in the Old Trafford hot seat might be numbered and said his players had “not dared to play” in the first half.
“The club doesn’t have to fire or sack me, sometimes I do it by myself,” he told reporters.
Asked whether he would be in charge of United’s home match with Chelsea on Monday, he said: “We will have to wait and see”.
Leicester topped the table at Christmas, a year after being rooted to the bottom, but they were not at their best against eighth-placed Liverpool 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,” said Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri. “Now we have to restart.”
Southampton took a 19th-minute lead against Arsenal when Curacao defender Cuco Martina delivered a majestic strike from 25 metres, the ball starting well outside the right post and curving perfectly before nestling in the bottom corner of the net.
Long then beat keeper Petr Cech from eight metres in the 55th minute. Captain Jose Fonte added the third goal with a towering close-range header from Ryan Bertrand’s right-wing corner before Long made it 4-0 in stoppage time.
Guus Hiddink’s second spell as Chelsea’s interim manager began with a 2-2 draw at home to Watford. Brazilian Oscar spurned the chance to secure victory when he missed a late penalty as the champions remained sixth from bottom.
Spain striker Diego Costa scored twice 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 means Chelsea are two points above the relegation zone.
Crystal Palace drew 0-0 at 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, Ki Sung-yeung scoring the only goal against visiting West Bromwich Albion.
Newcastle dropped into the bottom three, behind Norwich on goal difference, after losing 1-0 to Everton following a last-gasp Tom Cleverley winner.