LONDON (AP)Arsenal couldn’t have asked for a much better end to the year.

The Gunners stretched their Premier League lead to seven points with a 4-2 win at Brighton on Saturday, having seen their two closest challengers – Manchester City and Newcastle – both drop points earlier in the day.

Perhaps it’s really time to start believing for a team that hasn’t won the league title since the unbeaten ”Invincibles” did so in 2004.

”Of course at the start of the season if you asked us if we wanted this (position at New Year’s) we would bite your hand off,” said Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka, who netted the first goal against Brighton after little more than a minute. ”It is a great opportunity we have, and it’s a great place we have put ourselves in.”

Martin Odegaard and Eddie Nketiah also scored to put Arsenal 3-0 up by the 47th and seemingly cruising to an easy win, but the visitors still endured an unnecessarily nervy finish as Brighton’s resistance only ended when an 89th-minute goal that would have made it 4-3 was ruled out for offside after a VAR check.

That helped Mikel Arteta’s side take full advantage of City’s slip-up earlier in the day, when another goal from Erling Haaland wasn’t enough to prevent the defending champion from being held to a 1-1 home draw by Everton thanks to a stunning equalizer from Demarai Gray. Third-place Newcastle also saw a six-game winning streak end with a 0-0 draw against Leeds.

Manchester United climbed into the top four for the first time this season thanks to Marcus Rashford, who was dropped to the bench for disciplinary reasons but came on to secure a 1-0 win over Wolverhampton.

Rashford was dropped by Erik ten Hag after being late for a team meeting when he overslept, but responded by coming off the bench after the halftime break to give a sluggish United side the spark it needed.

”I was a little bit late for a meeting. I slept in, overslept, but it can happen,” Rashford said. ”I’m obviously disappointed not to play but I understand the decision and I’m happy we managed to win the game anyway. I think we can draw a line under it and move on.”

Ten Hag also seemed ready to move on, having seen once again how important Rashford is to his team’s attack.

”Everyone has to match the standards and rules. We have to have consequences and it is what I expect on the pitch. He gave the right answer,” Ten Hag said of Rashford. ”I was not satisfied with the performance in the first half. We have to be more clinical and we know Rashy can score the goals and that’s what he did.”

Rashford netted his 11th goal of the season after he collected the ball on the left before cutting inside and swapping passes with Bruno Fernandes, then dribbled his way past two defenders to sweep it past goalkeeper Jose Sa.

Fulham climbed to seventh place with a 2-1 win over Southampton, while Crystal Palace earned a 2-0 victory at Bournemouth.

CITY HELD

Haaland seemed to have made the difference for City once again when Riyad Mahrez slalomed his way through the area and pulled back for the Norway striker, who finished clinically on the turn for his 21st league goal.

But Gray responded for Everton when he burst into the area, held the ball up – and nearly slipped in the process – before curling a sublime effort inside the far post just after the hour.

”Dropping points at home is always tough but I’m always trying to make our game good and we have continued to do it,” City manager Pep Guardiola said. ”They made a fantastic goal and when that happens you say congratulations but in general we did really well.”

NEWCASTLE STREAK ENDS

Newcastle was on a run of six straight Premier League wins but couldn’t find a way past Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier.

Defender Fabian Schar had the best chances but wasted three good opportunities as Leeds held firm to end a two-game losing streak.

”The desire was there, the quality was there but the finishing wasn’t there. We had a number of opportunities that normally we take,” Newcastle manager Eddie Howe said.

Still, he called 2022 ”a year of real progress” as the team is fighting for a top-four finish under its new Saudi ownership.

”There are big challenges ahead but we look forward to those,” Howe said.

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