Indomitable Leicester City stayed bang on course for the Premier League title as Riyad Mahrez scored the only goal at Crystal Palace on Saturday to open up an eight-point lead with seven games left.
Third-placed Arsenal, 11 points behind with a game in hand, made a timely return to form with a 2-0 win at Everton and Tottenham Hotspur can reduce the gap to five on Sunday.
But any hopes that the two London rivals and fourth-placed Manchester City harbour of Leicester imploding are fading fast.
Leicester’s 3 000 fans were chanting “We’re gonna win the league” long after their side’s 1-0 win at Selhurst Park and while manager Claudio Ranieri refuses stubbornly to acknowledge his side are favourites, few would bet against the Foxes completing the job now.
“I think now we are close to achieving the Champions League,” was as far as Ranieri was prepared to venture when addressing reporters afterwards.
“That is a great achievement, but it is step by step,” the Italian, whose side need 18 points to be guaranteed the most unlikely of titles, added.
“It sounds good, our fans are singing a very good song about that, but we need to stay calm.”
Leicester’s 13th league victory this season by a single-goal margin came courtesy of the outstanding Algerian Mahrez.
With 34 minutes on the clock, England call-up Danny Drinkwater fed Jamie Vardy and his precise cross was an open invitation for Mahrez which he accepted with glee.
Palace did hit the bar late on through Damien Delaney but Leicester hung on for a fourth win in five league games.
“You can see they play with confidence, they have momentum, a great balance to the team. They will be difficult to catch,” Palace boss Alan Pardew said. “They would be worthy champions.”
West Ham United’s hope of barging into the top four suffered a late setback at Chelsea where they were denied victory by Cesc Fabregas’s dubious late penalty.
Substitute Andy Carroll had put West Ham 2-1 ahead and had it stayed that way, they would have moved above Manchester City into a Champions League berth.
But Fabregas, who also scored Chelsea’s first equaliser with a free kick, left them frustrated and angry after converting from the spot after Ruben Loftus-Cheek tumbled in the area despite being clipped outside it.
“We should have two points more. We are gutted. Proud, but gutted,” West Ham manager Slaven Bilic told reporters, describing referee Robert Madley’s decision to award the penalty “unacceptable”.
The Hammers stayed in fifth place with 50 points, one behind Manchester City who play sixth-placed Manchester United (47) in Sunday’s derby.
Chelsea remained unbeaten in the league under interim manager Guus Hiddink, but an 11th draw of the season for last season’s champions left them 10th.
Some Arsenal fans displayed banners at Goodison Park urging manager Arsene Wenger to step down, but his side produced a vibrant display to at least end a depressing week on a high.
First-half goals by Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi secured a first win in four league games and lifted some of the gloom after exits from the FA Cup and Champions League.
“Mathematically, we have a chance,” Wenger told a news conference. “We are not flavour of the week, but if we don’t believe, no-one will do it for us.”
Norwich City’s survival hopes received a boost as they won 1-0 at West Bromwich Albion to move three points above the relegation zone while Swansea City also edged closer to safety with a 1-0 win over bottom club Aston Villa who are all but gone after a 21st league defeat.
Stoke City retained their hopes of European football as a 2-1 victory at Watford lifted them to seventh.