LONDON: Theo Walcott scored the fastest goal of the Premier League season as Arsenal beat Queens Park Rangers 1-0 to climb to third place on Saturday, while Wigan boosted their hopes of survival with a resilient 3-2 win at West Bromwich Albion.
Walcott netted after just 20 seconds against relegated QPR at Loftus Road, eclipsing former Arsenal team-mate Robin van Persie, who had scored for Manchester United against West Ham United after 33 seconds in November.
The England forward was denied by QPR goalkeeper Rob Green on three separate occasions as the visitors sought a second goal, but Arsenal were ultimately indebted to their own goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, for a fine late save to thwart Loic Remy.
“You can only win your own games and watch what happens elsewhere,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
“Chelsea play Tottenham on Wednesday and they’re at Manchester United tomorrow. Football is unpredictable, but for three months we’ve been in a position where we cannot drop points.”
Victory took Arsenal above both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, who had briefly claimed fourth place after Gareth Bale scored yet another superb goal in a 1-0 win over his former club Southampton.
Bale was this week named the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year, to go with his double success at the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year awards, and he proved his worth once again with his 25th goal of the campaign.
In a game delayed by half an hour due to a nearby motorway closure, Southampton looked set to claim a hard-earned point until Bale struck with four minutes to play.
Collecting possession wide on the right, the Welshman cut inside and shrugged off Luke Shaw before arrowing a crisp drive into the bottom-left corner from 25 yards.
“I saw the space open up and got a good strike away,” explained Bale.
“It is a massive three points and keeps our Champions League hopes alive.”Callum McManaman also scored a late winner as Wigan gave themselves renewed hope of pulling off another late escape by twice coming from behind to win at West Brom.
The home side went in front twice at the Hawthorns, through Shane Long and Gareth McAuley, only for Wigan to reply on each occasion with goals from Arouna Kone and substitute James McArthur, who scored with his first touch.
McManaman then netted the decisive goal in the 80th minute, side-footing home from close range after a superb run down the left from Shaun Maloney.
“We have worked really hard for two months to get us in the position where, with two weeks of the season left, we are still involved in two competitions,”said Wigan manager Roberto Martinez.
“If we stay up, it would be like winning the title.”
FA Cup finalists Wigan are now just two points below fourth-bottom Sunderland, who host Stoke City on Monday, and three points adrift of Norwich City and Newcastle United, who could only draw 0-0 at West Ham United.
Gabriel Agbonlahor may have secured Aston Villa’s top-flight status for another year after scoring an 89th-minute winner in a 2-1 success at Norwich.
Villa, who thrashed Sunderland 6-1 on Monday, took a 55th-minute lead when Agbonlahor drove forward from the halfway line before planting a shot into the bottom-left corner from the edge of the 18-yard box.
Grant Holt equalised from the penalty spot with 16 minutes to play, but Agbonlahor struck again at the death to send Paul Lambert’s team five points clear of danger, albeit having played a game more than third-bottom Wigan.
Elsewhere, deposed champions Manchester City were held to a 0-0 draw at Swansea City in a forgettable game at the Liberty Stadium.
The result left Roberto Mancini’s men 13 points behind champions Manchester United, who could now move 16 points clear at the summit with victory at home to fourth-place Chelsea on Sunday.
Hal Robson-Kanu scored twice as relegated Reading registered only their second away win of the season with a 4-2 success at Fulham.
Bryan Ruiz also found the net twice for the home side, who slipped to 12th place.
Hull City secured a place in the Premier League for next season earlier on Saturday after drawing 2-2 at home to already-promoted Cardiff City on the final day of the Championship season.
Watford, Brighton and Hove Albion, Crystal Palace and Leicester City will contest the play-offs.