Kevin De Bruyne made a dramatic return to action as Manchester City eased back to winning ways with a convincing 3-1 victory over Watford.
The Belgian did not score but was the main architect as the Premier League leaders overcame Sunday’s rare blip at Crystal Palace with strikes from Raheem Sterling – after less than a minute – Sergio Aguero and a Christian Kabasele own goal.
De Bruyne had been highly doubtful for the clash at the Etihad Stadium after being carried off in the goalless draw at Selhurst Park – which ended City’s record-breaking run of 18 successive wins – but he played as if he had not been hurt at all.
Watford were outplayed by City for a second time this season, following a 6-0 hammering in September, but did manage a late consolation from Andre Gray on a cold and wet night.
The result did not seem in doubt from the moment Sterling prodded home the opener after just 38 seconds.
It was as if City had been affronted by the Palace result and were determined to take it out on the Hornets yet again.
Moments later John Stones, back in the side after 12 games out injured, should have doubled the lead but he lofted a straightforward chance over.
City’s seemingly inevitable second goal came after 13 minutes, this time De Bruyne delivering from the right and the unfortunate Kabasele sliding in to flick the ball beyond Heurelho Gomes.
De Bruyne went close to netting the third himself as Gomes tipped his free-kick onto the bar.
Further chances came as De Bruyne twice picked out Aguero but the Argentinian was denied by Gomes while David Silva – returning after missing four of the last five games – blazed over.
Watford, to their credit, did carve out some good openings. The best of them fell to Gray after he was played through by Etienne Capoue, but Ederson diverted his low shot wide.
City came out after the break looking for more goals, with Aguero and Nicolas Otamendi heading wide.
It came as no surprise when City did make it 3-0, De Bruyne again causing trouble with a wicked ball from the right. Gomes could not keep hold and gifted a simple chance for Aguero to poke in.
De Bruyne’s efforts deserved a goal and he again went close to getting one with a low drive that flashed by the outside of the post. It proved his final act, however, as he was substituted moments later.
Watford were already doomed to their seventh defeat in nine games but at least had the final say when Andre Carillo crossed from the right and Gray turned in.
They also wanted a late penalty when Roberto Pereyra went down under an Otamendi challenge but nothing was given
Rivalry will be renewed at the Emirates Stadium when Arsenal welcome Chelsea in the London derby on Wednesday.
Ahead of the game, we take a look back at Arsene Wenger’s record against Chelsea managers during his time as Gunners boss.
ANTONIO CONTE (P5, W3, D1, L1)
The Italian arrived as Chelsea boss after crashing out on penalties to Germany at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2016.
With a star-studded squad at his disposal at Stamford Bridge, Conte was given a rude awakening with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Arsenal early in his tenure – but would go on to win the league in his first season in west London.
Perhaps Wenger’s biggest scalp over Conte was last season’s FA Cup win when Aaron Ramsey netted 11 minutes from time to deliver a 17th trophy for the Gunners under the Frenchman’s tutelage.
RAFAEL BENITEZ (P1, W0, D0, L1)
Benitez was never going to be a fan favourite in west London, despite winning a Europa League title and finishing third in the league during his six month spell as interim manager.
Friends off the pitch, Benitez and Wenger have both backed each other in their darkest managerial hours – with the Spaniard holding a better record against the Gunners after a 2-1 win in January 2013, courtesy of goals from Juan Mata and Frank Lampard.
ROBERTO DI MATTEO (P2, W0, D1, L1)
Another boss who only lasted six months, but still goes down as one of the most popular managers after leading the club to an impressive Champions League title in 2012.
He also holds a formidable record against Wenger – with a 0-0 draw at Emirates extending the Blues unbeaten run to nine games late in the 2011/12 season, while a 2-1 win in September strengthened their position at the top of the table.
ANDRE VILLAS-BOAS (P1, W1, D0, L0)
Wenger and Villas-Boas may have faced each other just once during the Portuguese time at Chelsea, but it was a scintillating eight goal thriller in October 2011 that will be most remembered.
Robin van Persie proved to be the hero as he netted a hat-trick to inspire the Gunners to a sensational 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge.
Wenger was critical of owner Roman Abramovich when Villas-Boas was sacked in March 2012 after just nine months at the helm, saying he “felt sorry for Villas-Boas because I like him as a manager and as a man”.
CARLO ANCELOTTI (P4, W1, D0, L3)
Wenger struggled against Ancelotti’s Chelsea, winning just one of their four meetings.
The sole triumph – after three one-sided defeats – came in December 2010, and put a halt to a barren run of five matches without a win in all competitions against their London rivals.
Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott recorded the goals as the Gunners cruised to a 3-1 victory.
GUUS HIDDINK (P3, W0, D0, L3)
The Dutchman is the only Chelsea manager to hold a successful 100% record against Wenger – with three resounding wins during his two short stints at the club.
In his first spell, the Blues stormed to a 2-1 win to reach the FA Cup final in April 2009, and followed it up with a commanding 4-1 victory to finish third in the league four weeks later.
Wenger’s last game against Hiddink in January 2016 will be remembered for Per Mertesacker’s controversial sending off after 18 minutes and Diego Costa’s crucial winning goal five minutes later.
LUIZ FELIPE SCOLARI (P1, W1, D0, L0)
Wenger contested just one game against Luiz Felipe Scolari, with van Persie striking twice in three minutes to stun the Premier League leaders in a 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in November 2008.
The Brazilian was subsequently sacked after seven months in charge as the Blues failed to sustain a serious challenge for the league title.
When Scolari was dismissed in February 2009, Wenger called the decision a “massive surprise”.
AVRAM GRANT (P2, W1, D0, L1)
Like many of the Blues’ bosses, Grant’s tenure at the club was short lived, but the 62-year-old still guided the club to a Champions League final in 2008 against Manchester United.
On the domestic front Chelsea looked solid – finishing second behind the Red Devils in the same season.
Despite all their class, Wenger’s side could only settle for third, but managed to beat Grant’s Chelsea in their first meeting of the season courtesy of a William Gallas header.
In the return fixture in April 2009, Didier Drogba bagged a brace to inspire the Blues to a 2-1 victory.
JOSE MOURINHO (P15, W1, D6, L8)
A rivalry that stretches back 12 years, the feud between Mourinho and Wenger is more personal than competitive.
The former Chelsea manager labeled the Frenchman a “voyeur” back in 2005 and a “specialist failure” in 2014 – comments considered steps too far by both sets of fans.
But aside from the off-field drama, Mourinho’s record against Wenger is flawless – with eight wins and six draws from their 14 meetings.
The fixture Wenger will want to forget quickest is a comprehensive 6-0 defeat on his 1000th game in charge in March 2014 at Stamford Bridge.
CLAUDIO RANIERI (P14, W8, D5, L1)
In his 14 matches against Ranieri’s Chelsea, Wenger lost just once – a 3-2 defeat in the Champions League quarter-final of 2004.
Wayne Bridge’s goal three minutes from time denied the Gunners their dream of European glory.
The Frenchman’s most prominent win over his Italian friend was in the FA Cup final of 2002 when the Gunners sealed a second double in five years.
GIANLUCA VIALLI (P7, W3, D2, L2)
The Frenchman has a mixed record against Vialli, who stepped in to the Chelsea role for Ruud Gullit aged just 33.
Arsenal may have won the league in 1999, but they suffered a dismal 5-0 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup earlier that campaign.
The following season, the Gunners did the double over their London neighbours – a 1-0 home win and a 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge.
But it was the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge in September that led to Vialli’s sacking after just five matches into the Premier League 2000/2001 season.
RUUD GULLIT (P4, W4, D0, L0)
Gullit became the first Dutch boss in the Premier League when appointed as player-manager in 1996.
Wenger held the upper hand over the former midfielder – with four facile victories – the most comprehensive of which was a 3-0 league win at Stamford Bridge in April 1997 where Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp scored.
After a promising start in 1996, he was sacked the following season due to a disagreement with the board – with his side second in the league and still at the quarter-final stage of two cup competitions.
However, while that may prove to be crucial in Liverpool’s season it is unlikely to be of much help to the 32-year-old in the short-term with Van Dijk keen to get his Reds career under way after completing his move from Southampton on New Year’s Day.
Klavan, a £4.2m buy from Augsburg in July 2016, is fourth-choice centre-back but he is not deterred by the big-money arrival.
“He is a good addition to our team. It is like it is for everyone: there is competition and competition is good for all places,” he said.
Klavan was teed up for his goal by fellow centre-back Dejan Lovren as Liverpool came from behind to win for the second time in 48 hours.
It made it four wins in five matches and maintained their momentum heading into January, which 12 months ago was when their unlikely title bid stumbled as they won just once in nine matches – and that an FA Cup replay victory over League Two Plymouth.
What was just as significant was the win was achieved without injured top scorer Mohamed Salah or Philippe Coutinho, and Roberto Firmino playing just the last 18 minutes as a substitute having been rested.
“It was good. We kept on fighting and got three points,” added Klavan, whose only other goal for the club came in a League Cup win last season.
“That’s part of the game. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.
“Those were three really important points but I’m not really one who wants to shine in the light.
“It was a good moment for me and for the team to get the three points, which is what we came here for, and that’s it for me.”
Everton are next up in Friday’s Merseyside derby home FA Cup third round tie, a month after their neighbours secured a 1-1 draw at Anfield with a controversial penalty.
Having dominated that game but ultimately been frustrated, Klavan feels they need to make sure this time around.
“It is always a special game,” he said.
“It was a little bit unlucky with everything which happened around the game but we just keep on going.
“When we are at our best there is a great chance we will succeed.”