LONDON - Raheem Sterling's hat-trick in Manchester City's 3-1 win over Watford lifted the champions four points clear at the top of the Premier League after Tottenham Hotspur's challenge faltered again with a 2-1 loss at Southampton on Saturday.
On a landmark day for England strikers, with Harry Kane scoring his 200th goal for clubs and country in Spurs' defeat and Jamie Vardy notching his 100th and 101st for Leicester City in their 3-1 win over Fulham, Sterling took pride of place.
City, still on course to lift four different trophies, took advantage of Sterling being awarded a contentious goal just after halftime before he struck a minute later and completed his treble in the space of 13 minutes.
Gerard Deulofeu pulled one back within 17 seconds of being brought on as a substitute but Pep Guardiola's men never looked threatened as they moved on to 74 points from 30 games, four clear of Liverpool, who host Burnley on Sunday.
Sterling's opening goal following a goalless first half was awarded after originally being ruled out for offside.
A long discussion between referee Paul Tierney and his assistant saw the decision reversed with Sterling ruled to have been played onside by Watford's Daryl Janmaat, whose challenge saw the ball ricochet off the striker's leg into the net.
Yet if the opener was debatable, there was no argument about the other two as Sterling made it 15 league goals for the season.
"It's a massive win," Sterling told the BBC. "In my head, I am hoping and praying (that the first goal would be awarded). I was hoping my goal didn't get cancelled out. We got it and it kick started our game."
England captain Kane's first-half milestone was eclipsed as third-placed Spurs squandered a lead in a game they were dominating, prompting criticism of his players by manager Mauricio Pochettino.
On an unhappy return to his old St Mary's stamping ground, Pochettino, serving the first of a two-match touchline ban, could hardly credit how his side capitulated to two late goals in five minutes from Yan Valery and James Ward-Prowse.
Now without a win in their last four league games, it left the Argentine fuming.
"It is difficult to understand why we changed so much from the first half to the second. We did not take the second half seriously," Pochettino said.
Ward-Prowse's stunning free-kick winner left Spurs on 61 points, 13 behind Man City and nine adrift of Liverpool.
The win also dented Spurs' hopes in an ever-tighter top-four battle for Champions League places as they remain just three points ahead of nearest pursuers Manchester United, who play at fifth-placed Arsenal on Sunday.
Southampton's late turnaround earned them crucial points in the fight to avoid relegation, just as Cardiff City were able to celebrate an equally important 2-0 win over West Ham United thanks to goals from Junior Hoilett and Victor Camarasa.
Fellow strugglers Brighton & Hove Albion also had reason to cheer as a dazzling individual goal from Anthony Knockaert sealed their 2-1 win at fierce rivals Crystal Palace.
Cardiff's win was not enough to take the 18th-placed side out of the bottom three but they are only two points behind Burnley and Southampton (30 points) while Brighton joined Palace on 33.
Newcastle United pushed clear of the struggling pack into 13th place with an astonishing comeback from two down at halftime to beat Everton 3-2, with a goal from Salomon Rondon and a late double from Ayoze Perez, that earned them a fifth straight league win at St James' Park.
There seems, however, no hope for Fulham under caretaker manager Scott Parker, after their defeat at Leicester, whose own new boss Brendan Rodgers was grateful for Vardy's late double.
The brace ensured the England striker became the first player to achieve a three-figure tally of goals for the Foxes since Gary Lineker.
Fulham are in 19th place on 17 points with their plight only topped by Huddersfield Town's after the Terriers remained three points further adrift following their 2-0 home defeat by Bournemouth.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Ed Osmond)
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