As we move into the second half of the English Premier League season, there are fewer and fewer truly surprising results. Even in a season like this one, where an unusual amount of squads harbor legitimate championship (and even Champions League) contention, the standings are separating themselves into distinct strata.
The first matches of 2014 nearly saw that order thrown into chaos, however, with several underdogs holding late leads. And while the team at the top of the table managed to squeak out three points, not all the favorites were so fortunate.
Here, then, are the three most surprising results of the New Year's day matches and what they mean going forward.
Arsenal 2, Cardiff 0
Someone who missed today's matches and saw the scoreline would likely shrug his or her shoulders. But Cardiff, who surprisingly pushed Man City on the road last week, nearly pulled off a similarly shocking draw against Arsenal.
But the Gunners escaped when Nicklas Bendtner pounced on a rebound off a header and buried the game's first goal in the 87th minute. Theo Walcott added another tally two minutes later to salt the game away and keep Arsenal at the top of the Premier League standings:
Delirium at the Emirates! Bendtner scores in the 87th minute to give Arsenal a 1-0 lead. He then injured himself celebrating.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 1, 2014
Cardiff turned in a gritty performance in front of manager-in-waiting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, frustrating Arsenal's injury-depleted forward line for much of the game. The Gunners had numerous chances—Jack Wilshere had a shot which ricocheted off the post in the 16th minute, and the English midfielder looked to have drawn a penalty kick nine minutes later.
Arsenal's depth continues to be thinned after Bendtner's injury, but for another week, they remain at the top of the table.
Stoke 1, Everton 1
Everton not only found itself in a dogfight with Stoke, but the Toffees found themselves trailing after Oussama Assaidi took advantage of a botched clearance attempt to put the Potters in front in the 49th minute.
But Everton were bailed out when Stoke sub Jermaine Pennant fouled Leon Osman and Leighton Baines put away a penalty in stoppage time. In truth, Everton were unfortunate not to already be tied or leading, as Kevin Miralles twice hit the post with excellent opportunities.
Everton get the PENALTY in the 92nd minute. Baines converts! What a way to salvage a point.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 1, 2014
Even with the result, the Toffees slip from fourth to fifth in the standings following Liverpool's victory, and the Man United-Tottenham duo continues to creep closer. Everton have overachieved a bit to put themselves in Champions League position, and while salvaging a point helps, the Blues need three against bottom-half teams to stay in the running.
West Brom 1, Newcastle 0
The day's biggest upset belonged to manager-less West Brom, who utilized a late penalty to earn three points against a Newcastle squad down to 10 men.
RED CARD Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle). The Frenchman is sent off for a dangerous tackle by referee Lee Mason after 62 mins #WBANEW— Premier League (@premierleague) January 1, 2014
Mathieu Debuchy was the guilty party for the Magpies, as the right-back's lunging tackle resulted in a red card in the 62nd minute. Afterwards, it was largely the Baggies who forced the pace, with numerous long-ball attempts that generated plenty of scoring chances.
Saido Berahino's penalty put West Brom ahead with four minutes remaining, earning the squad's first victory in 10 games. The win gives West Brom a bit of breathing room in the relegation outlook, as they are now in 14th and four points clear of Crystal Palace.
The loss is devastating for Newcastle, and not simply because they lost ground to the top seven teams. Debuchy will be unavailable for the next three matches, and his steady play on the back end will be missed.
Newcastle play Man City, West Ham and Norwich in their next three league matches and cannot drop too many more points without eliminating themselves from even faint Champions League contention.