Entering the halfway point of the English Premier League season, the table is still tightly packed in every meaningful race. Thursday's results may have been the first step in creating some separation, however.
Only two of the top nine teams lost, solidifying the top tier of the league. Meanwhile, every team that started the day between 10th and 15th lost. Things are still tightly packed, but now on opposite directions—four teams are within five points of a top-four finish and an automatic Champions League berth, while five teams are no more than six points clear of relegation.
Let's take a look at the table entering the first round of Week 18 matches, and dissect how three matches in particular altered the current standings:
Arsenal 3, West Ham 1
There's a new king of the hill this week, as Arsenal have taken over the top spot following their victory over West Ham, coupled with Liverpool's loss at the Etihad.
The Gunners dominated the opening half, but were unlucky to go into the intermission still locked in a scoreless tie. Arsenal's fortunes turned even worse when keeper Wojciech Szczesny bobbled a long-range shot, allowing Hammers striker Carlton Cole to give the hosts a stunning lead.
However, led by Theo Walcott, Arsenal were able to regain control of a potentially chaotic situation. Walcott's two goals in a three-minute span salvaged a win that came harder than expected. As ESPNFC.com's James Tyler notes, Walcott and Lukas Podolski were the offensive catalysts that made the difference for Arsenal, something that must continue going forward:
While some pundits make a tidy cottage industry of questioning Arsenal's lack of depth on a dailty basis, others felt (and knew) that the return of the aforementioned pair would boost a lagging squad at a time when fixture pile-up threatened to derail a promising season.
Their natural width serves as a vital antidote to the Gunners' increasingly narrow play, opening room for Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla to pick apart opponents. With Olivier Giroud having failed to score since November 23 in all competitions, the need for other outlets is an increasing concern.
Enter the injury-struck pair to show how it’s done on Boxing Day.
Whether or not Arsenal remain on top might depend on how many reinforcements the tired squad can get when the transfer window opens in January. But at least offensively, it appears the duo are a foundation the Gunners will rely upon.
Manchester United 3, Hull 2
Wayne Rooney may have salvaged United's championship hopes, picking up a goal and an assist in leading the Red Devils back from a stunning 2-0 first-half deficit. Rooney's stunning 25th-minute volley not only knotted the game but also made the English striker only the second player to score 150 goals with the same Premier League club.
The win moves United up one spot in the standings, and at seventh, they sit just five points out of a top-four finish. Three points are sweet under any circumstances, but this win was especially important given the circumstances.
Hull came into the match rolling, having earned points in four of the past five matches. Meanwhile, United were reincorporating and adjusting their lineup based on numerous injuries—Darren Fletcher started for the first time in over a year, but defender Phil Jones was out with a knee injury. Rooney himself admitted that the victory was a difficult, grinding effort:
Man Utd's @WayneRooney: "It was a real scrap... We had to show our fighting spirit. We've done that and this was a massive result for us."— Premier League (@premierleague) December 26, 2013
But the result is now in the books, and of the Red Devils' next eight matches, six are against teams from the bottom half of the league. Today's comeback victory could mark the beginning of United's ascent back up the standings.
Crystal Palace 1, Aston Villa 0
The dregs of the Premier League brought about the day's best ending, as Crystal Palace substitute Dwight Gayle scored a stunning winner in stoppage time to down Aston Villa. The Eagles are now officially out of the relegation zone, and in the process they've chained Villa closer to the drop zone.
Palace's theft of an extra two points will surely be critical, for they actually still sit tied with Fulham for the last relegation spot, though they are one goal ahead on goal differential. But with a daunting road game coming up, Eagles manager Tony Pulis understands the magnitude of the victory:
Conversely, it's a devastating loss for Aston Villa, who likely saw this home match as a three-point opportunity. Fortunately for Villa, all of the teams near them in the standings also lost, so they did not concede ground in the table. Nevertheless, they will rue today as a missed golden opportunity to move up the standings and create some separation from the relegation teams.