After a tightly packed first half of the English Premier League season, Week 18 looks like the starting point for when the top dogs will start to separate themselves from the pack.
Make no mistake: It's still far from certain who might end up winning the title. Manchester City are widely considered the team with the best form, but they've been shaky away from the Etihad. Arsenal currently top the table, but the Gunners are already a wearied squad. And Manchester United, after a head-scratching start, are once again rising up the standings.
Let's break down four of the most important Boxing Day results and what they might mean going forward.
Manchester City 2, Liverpool 1
The day's glamorous prime-time match lived up to the hype, with Man City erasing an early 1-0 deficit to remain undefeated at home this season. The two teams played an aesthetically pleasing back-and-forth fast-paced style, which generated plenty of scoring opportunities throughout.
EPL leading scorer Luis Suarez played the role of setup man in the 19th minute, when he provided a golden scoring chance for Raheem Sterling. The winger was unable to put the shot home, taking a heavy touch, but Philippe Coutinho cleaned things up with a tight-angle goal.
However, the Citizens maintained their composure admirably and took the lead before the half was out. Vincent Kompany muscled his way into position on a corner kick to head home the equalizer. On one of the final kicks of the half, Alvaro Negredo fooled Reds keeper Simon Mignolet, who got a hand on the shot, but only enough to watch the ball trickle over the line.
City's win has tremendous implications at the top, as the victors now move up to second in the league. Liverpool, meanwhile, drop all the way from first to fourth and are ruing several missed opportunities to tie the game and steal a point in the second half:
Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini: "It was important, when we were losing 1-0, to have the character and personality to go for the match."— Premier League (@premierleague) December 26, 2013
Man City captain @VincentKompany: "Three points were massive, it was the hardest game we've had at home so far... It's a massive boost."— Premier League (@premierleague) December 26, 2013
City made a promising statement against an elite opponent, even if it was at home, where the Citizens are typically indomitable. The road issues still exist, but even in spite of them, Man City look like the odds-on favorites to take home their second league title in three seasons.
Manchester United 3, Hull City 2
After the first 13 minutes, United looked as if they were poised for yet another disappointing letdown in a season full of them. The Red Devils were down 2-0 on the road, and Hull City looked poised to build upon their recent positive momentum.
But Wayne Rooney stepped in and exhibited world-class form, volleying home a beautiful equalizer in the 26th minute, seven minutes after Chris Smalling headed home a goal to get United on the board. In the second half, a James Chester own goal made the difference and United escaped with three crucial points.
Given that only Liverpool and Everton lost among teams ahead of United headed into the day, the Red Devils could not really afford to drop any points. Per Sky Sports, manager David Moyes was happy with the spirit his team played with despite the early deficit:
We didn't start well, but all credit to the players for getting themselves back.
I think it's what Manchester United are capable of, they have been over the years.
We played well enough after that to score goals, and create goals. It was a bit harem scarem in the last five minutes but I'd have taken that after being 2-0 down at the start of the game.
Unfortunately, it was not all good news for United in the postgame celebration. Rafael went down with a groin injury, and after the game, Moyes did not sound optimistic about his short-term prognosis:
David Moyes confirms Rafael injury as United’s bad luck continues: David Moyes has confirmed Rafael sustained ... http://t.co/EmKIisfqtW— United News Bulletin (@MUFCBulletin) December 26, 2013
United do not have much margin for error if they are to defend their league title, and with six of the next eight games against teams from the bottom half, they must capitalize upon a scheduling break.
Arsenal 3, West Ham 1
The Gunners have taken over the top spot in the league, earning a come-from-behind road win against West Ham.
Arsenal has been top of the league 12 weeks this season. No possibility that anyone has foreseen this on here, self included.— Janusz Michallik (@JanuszESPN) December 26, 2013
Despite controlling the action and generating the scoring opportunities throughout the first half, Arsenal went into the intermission deadlocked in a scoreless draw. They were punished for squandering those opportunities in the opening minute of the second half, when keeper Wojciech Szczesny bobbled a long-range shot, allowing striker Carlton Cole to send the Hammers out in front to a stunning 1-0 lead.
Arsenal seemed a bit shaken after the opening goal, but Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski eventually got the Gunners under control. Walcott scored twice in a three-minute span beginning from the 68th minute, and Podolski, who assisted on the second goal, was able to pound home a shot from the edge of the box after a lay-off from Olivier Giroud.
Arsenal are a weary team, but the return of their two strikers from injury should greatly goose a team in dire need of depth. The Gunners may still need to acquire an extra defender or two in transfer season, but Walcott and Podolski proved they could be the antidote offensively.
Sunderland 1, Everton 0
Everton entered the day tied for the all-important fourth position in the league and had yet to lose at home in 2013. They were also facing last-place Sunderland, so three points appeared all but assured at kickoff.
Well, as the old cliche goes, that's why they play the games. Goalkeeper Tim Howard was sent off after tripping Sunderland's Ki Sung-Yueng in the 23rd minute, on what the referee ruled was a scoring opportunity. Joel Robles, making his EPL debut for Everton, was unable to stop Ki's penalty shot, and the Toffees were stunned and down to 10 men.
Powered by substitute midfielder Ross Barkley, Everton threatened for the equalizer several times in the dying minutes, but were never able to change the 1-0 score. So Sunderland, which began the day alone in the league basement, have earned three unexpected points and are in a much more tenable spot moving forward. The last time Sunderland won at Goodison Park?
Lukaku was just 3 years old the last time Sunderland last won at Everton - Nov. 29, 1996.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 26, 2013
The historic victory is not only a huge boon for the Black Cats' attempt to avoid relegation, but also an equally massive blow to Everton's Premier League hopes. Liverpool's loss keeps the Toffees two points behind fourth, but victories by Chelsea and United on the day created some separation. For a team with so much positive momentum headed into the day, the ignominious result was devastating.