With many lineups refreshed by the inclusion of players signed late in the August transfer window, Arsenal and Manchester United dominated as the Barclays Premier League returned after the international break.
Since the match was a goal-less draw, there is no chance that post-game analysis will concentrate on the soccer rather than the context, even though the result ended Chelsea's perfect league record. This was the first meeting between the clubs since Chelsea captain John Terry was found not guilty of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand when the teams met at Loftus Road last October.
That incident dominated headlines for months, held a magnifying glass up to some of English soccer's ugliest traits and indirectly prompted Fabio Capello to quit as England manager in February after the Football Association stripped Terry of the national team captaincy.
With all eyes on the pair as they were forced into close proximity by the pre-match player handshakes, Ferdinand refused to shake Terry's hand. Nor did he clasp with Ashley Cole, the defender who was a character witness at Terry's trial. So much for the ritual that is designed to promote respect between adversaries; it had the reverse effect here.
As for the game, Ji-Sung Park wasted an excellent headed chance for QPR after 55 mins and Bobby Zamora squandered a one-on-one, though Eden Hazard missed a simple opportunity late at the other end.
Time for everyone to move on? Not yet. Despite his acquittal at that July trial in Westminster Magistrates' Court, the FA charged Terry with using racially abusive language. He denies the allegation, which will be heard by a panel later this month. If found guilty, Terry faces a ban and fine.
So soon after the confirmation of an appalling institutional cover-up, the lies that followed the losses, this game was naturally an afterthought -- an irrelevance in the wider scheme. It provided limited entertainment and continued Liverpool's tepid start under new manager Brendan Rodgers.
Liverpool will simply have to be sharper in all areas if they are to avoid defeat against Manchester United at Anfield next Sunday. Though they started more brightly than Sunderland and Fabio Borini forced two decent saves from Simon Mignolet, the home team scored with their first meaningful attack.
Glen Johnson failed to cut out a right-wing cross that was turned in by Steven Fletcher, first to the ball in the six-yard box ahead of Martin Skrtel. The striker was hungrier and more alert than his marker.
Luis Suarez (who had been booked for simulation) equalized inside the final 20 minutes, and it was merited. But it leaves Liverpool with a paltry two points from four games. And this is the sort of opponent a team with top-four pretensions must beat. Sunderland has not won in eleven Premier League fixtures, a record stretching back to March last season.
While Southampton 's record of three matches and three defeats prior to Saturday's trip to Emirates Stadium did not reflect its promising performances, there is no doubt Nigel Adkins' side got what it deserved.
Jos Hooiveld scored an own-goal and was substituted through injury before the half-hour as the newly-promoted team was eviscerated, 6-1. Southampton had the misfortune to catch Arsenal on one of those afternoons when manager Arsene Wenger's attacking philosophy is fully and marvelously realized and his players combine their usual flair with a lesser-spotted ruthlessness.
Lukas Poldolski scored a fine free kick and Gervinho claimed his first league goals since December 27. Nathaniel Clyne doubled the own-goal tally and Theo Walcott, who rose to fame as a teenage prodigy at Southampton, capped the rout off in the 88th minute.
Arsenal finally conceded for the first time this season when Danny Fox pulled a goal back in the 45th minute; but they were four up at that point. The Londoners' next Premier League fixtures are likely to be a little more challenging, and more educational as we wonder exactly how good Arsenal is: away to Manchester City and home to Chelsea.
Stunningly, Wigan beat Manchester United last April, which proved that miracles can happen. But Saturday's match reminded us that they rarely happen twice. The clubs have met sixteen times in total, and United has won fifteen, scoring 50 goals to Wigan's five. So a 4-0 win at Old Trafford for United was as routine as breathing.
Javier Hernandez missed a fifth-minute penalty awarded after what looked like a dive from Danny Welbeck, and the contest was scoreless at the break. But Hernandez atoned by claiming one of three goals in fifteen second-half minutes.
Different generations combined. Paul Scholes, the 37-year-old, opened the scoring in his 700th game for the club. Nick Powell, an 18-year-old striker, grabbed the fourth goal on his United debut. Scholes turned professional eight months before Powell was born. Another debutant, Alex Buttner, also found the net.
Signed by Stoke as a free agent after leaving Manchester United in the summer, he came on as a 90th-minute substitute on Saturday for his first competitive game since last November.
Usually injured or overlooked at Old Trafford, he made only five league starts for United in three years. He finally joined Stoke after it was clear that no bigger or more glamorous club was interested. Yet he is only 32. A renaissance is not impossible -- just improbable.
The officials at the Britannia Stadium did not spot that Peter Crouch used his left hand to control the ball as he fired Stoke into a fifteenth-minute lead, but Javi Garcia, one of three City debutants, leveled 20 minutes later.
The overall impression is that neither club is playing to its potential. Missing the injured Sergio Aguero, City's display will not have caused Real Madrid any anxiety ahead of their Champions League fixture on Tuesday. As Stoke basks in the prestige of signing a player of Owen's pedigree, it will hope his arrival produces something tangible. Next away to Chelsea, Stoke has drawn all four of its league games. It needs a boost.
If Martin Jol was getting carried away when he told reporters that Berbatov was "probably the biggest signing in the history of Fulham", one could understand the manager's excitement. The Bulgarian will be fascinating to watch as he attempts to show that Sir Alex Ferguson was wrong to sideline him at Old Trafford. Two goals on Saturday in his home debut as Fulham beat West Brom 3-0 is an ideal start.
Especially given the venomous, spiteful atmosphere at Loftus Road, it was refreshing to see supporters show their caring side as applause cascaded down the stands at Villa Park in tribute to Stiliyan Petrov, the Villa midfielder who is in remission from leukemia. The applause was timed for the 19th minute because Petrov wears the number 19 shirt.