Robin van Persie preserved Manchester United’s narrow lead in the Premier League with the quickest goal of the season, scoring after just 32 seconds in a 1-0 win over West Ham on Wednesday.
Defending champion Manchester City remained a point behind its neighbour thanks to a 2-0 victory at Wigan, courtesy of goals by Mario Balotelli and James Milner, but Rafa Benitez’s tough start to life as interim Chelsea manager continued with a lacklustre 0-0 home draw against Fulham.
The point at least lifted Chelsea into third place above West Bromwich Albion, which lost 3-1 at Swansea to end a four-match winning run in the league and bring the team back down to earth after its surprise start to the season.
Tottenham climbed to fifth place by beating Liverpool 2-1, with Spurs winger Gareth Bale scoring at both ends, while Arsenal was held 1-1 at Everton after also taking the lead after less than a minute through Theo Walcott.
Stoke came from behind to beat Newcastle 2-1, a fourth straight loss for the visitors, while Mark Clattenburg — the referee at the centre of recent racism accusations — made his return to the middle in Southampton’s 1-1 draw at home to Norwich.
Benitez was greeted with roars of disapproval prior to his first match in charge — a 0-0 home draw with Man City on Sunday — but fans gave him a less hostile reception three days on.
Instead, there was a general feeling of apathy around Stamford Bridge which lingered throughout a listless encounter at Stamford Bridge, which Fulham edged.
Chelsea has clearly improved defensively under the pragmatic Benitez but its attacking spark that marked its bright start to the season has disappeared. Boos rang out at the final whistle, with Chelsea having created few clear-cut chances in front of watching owner Roman Abramovich.
“It’s still a long way to go. We have to keep going. We’ll have chances,” Benitez said.
The Spaniard needs a slice of luck that Van Persie was granted at Old Trafford, with the Netherlands striker’s shot looping up off James Collins and over stranded goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen.
“We got a great start,” said Ferguson, whose side has more often than not conceded first this season. “You hope to go on from a start like that and some of our football was very good, but we never quite finished them off.”
For City, it was the complete opposite, starting sluggishly at Wigan but ending well to maintain its unbeaten start. The champions’ goals came in the space of four minutes, with Balotelli marking his return to the starting lineup by burying a loose ball in the 69th.
Milner, a second-half substitute, wrapped up victory in the 72nd, only to go off injured before the final whistle with a hamstring problem.
“We are happy but it is important to be top at the end of the season,” City manager Roberto Mancini said. “We played very well against Chelsea but didn’t win — against Wigan, we did not play as well but won.”
Bale had a busy night at White Hart Lane, setting up Tottenham’s opener for Aaron Lennon in the seventh minute then scoring with a swerving free kick in the 16th.
Jordan Henderson missed an open goal for Liverpool before Bale’s own goal — Lennon’s clearance smashed into the face of his fellow winger — ensured a nervy finish.
While Liverpool stayed 11th, Spurs rose above top-four rivals Arsenal and Everton, who couldn’t be separated at Goodison park.
Walcott’s early goal on his return from a shoulder injury was cancelled out by Marouane Fellaini’s shot from outside the area in the 28th.
“I think a point is fair as both sides played with high commitment,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. “Everton always looked a threat and we needed good focus and concentration not to concede a second goal.”
Late goals by Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome allowed Stoke to overhaul Newcastle, which had gone in front through Papiss Demba Cisse.
An error by Paulo Gazzaniga gifted Norwich a point at Southampton, with the Argentine goalkeeper fumbling a free kick by Robert Snodgrass into his own net in the 45th. Rickie Lambert had put Saints ahead in a match refereed by Clattenburg, resuming duties less than a week after being cleared of allegations that he racially abused Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel during a league match.