Liverpool lacked inspiration and guile as they were bettered in all departments by Stoke City, who claimed a hugely deserved 2-0 victory at the Britannia Stadium.
The Reds had experienced a mini-revival under Roy Hodgson in recent weeks, going six games unbeaten in all competitions, but after a fortunate draw at Wigan their luck ran out at Stoke. Tony Pulis' men were first to every ball from the opening whistle, and they got their reward through second-half strikes from Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones, before Lucas Leiva was sent off late on.
The first half ended with Stoke boss Pulis aiming all his fury at the referee, and with some justification after his side were denied at least one clear penalty. Martin Skrtel had a huge chunk of Robert Huth's jersey at one of the home team's many set-piece opportunities, but not for the first time this season Pulis was left a frustrated figure on the sidelines.
In truth, Stoke should have been comfortably ahead before half-time regardless of the officials' involvement. Jones missed a free header on ten minutes, and then Dean Whitehead volleyed narrowly wide moments later. Matt Etherington was also inches away from turning in a cross at the back post as Liverpool barely got outside of their own half.
On the rare occasion that they did manage a shot, both Steven Gerrard and Raul Meireles tested Asmir Begovic in the Stoke goal, but the service to the isolated Fernando Torres was appalling.
An opening goal for the hosts was inevitable as Pepe Reina worked overtime in the Liverpool area, and he was finally beaten when the ball ricocheted around the Reds' penalty box, eventually falling at the feet of Fuller to stab home.
Liverpool attempted to find a route back into the match but only created one clear chance for Maxi Rodriguez, and they were killed off in the 90th minute as Jones outmuscled the hapless Skrtel, before Lucas petulantly earned a second yellow in injury time.
Federico Macheda and Nemanja Vidic struck in the final ten minutes to help Manchester United avoid a first defeat of the season as they fought back to draw 2-2 with Aston Villa.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men appeared to be heading for their first loss at Villa Park since 1995 when Ashley Young and Marc Albrighton fired the home side 2-0 up with 14 minutes remaining. The goals arrived at the crescendo of an electric 15-minute spell by Villa but, having thrown away plenty of winning positions this season, United this time rallied to rescue a draw.
First Macheda, on for the lacklustre Dimitar Berbatov, smashed high into the top corner to spark his team into life. And then, with just five minutes remaining, Vidic arrived at the far post to clinch a barely deserved point for United.
Gerard Houllier raised more than the odd eyebrow ahead of kick-off with his team selection, which featured 21-year-old debutant Jonathan Hogg alongside his 20-year-old team-mate Barry Bannan in the absence of Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker. Typical of a Houllier side, the majority of the first-half possession rested with the opposition, but only once did United produce anything truly threatening. Berbatov was the man to force his way into the left channel of the Villa penalty area, but the Bulgarian's finish unusually lacked class as he stabbed wide of the near upright.
Half-time interrupted the general malaise around Villa Park and, working with a team boasting ten British or Irish outfield players, Houllier inspired a breathtaking response after the break - led by his wide players as Albrighton twice went close at the far post. United's players were rattled, none more so than Nani, who was extremely fortunate not to see red after his elbow found the head of Stephen Warnock. Referee Mike Dean only produced a yellow card, but regardless of the numerical equality Villa were well on top.
James Collins, up for a corner, found Edwin Van der Sar's crossbar from Downing's pinpoint cross, and less than five minutes later Gabriel Agbonlahor clipped the base of the right post. A goal was surely coming, and it finally arrived when Ashley Young earned and converted a penalty after being clipped by Wes Brown.
Four minutes later it was 2-0 as Downing, who gave Fabio Capello a timely reminder of his talents just hours before the announcement of the England squad to play France, crossed for Albrighton to double the advantage. United, who had not registered a shot on target in 76 minutes of football, appeared to be reeling. However, with time running out, Macheda and Vidic managed to preserve their undefeated record, if not their growing pursuit of Chelsea.
Manchester City continue to frustrate under Roberto Mancini, drawing 0-0 at home against Birmingham to leave themselves six points behind Chelsea having played an extra game. Mancini suffered criticism for killing the game after the midweek Manchester derby, and his response was to field an attacking line-up, sacrificing Gareth Barry in midfield to add Adam Johnson to a forward line including David Silva, Carlos Tevez and James Milner.
The change failed to produce the desired results though, with City registering just one shot on target in the first half. Tevez really should have done better after the break, missing the target when clean through, but he was then withdrawn for Barry late on as City left the field to jeers from their home support.
Tottenham are back within three points of City after they beat Blackburn 4-2 to breathe new life into their Champions League qualification hopes with a first league victory in five matches. Harry Redknapp's men have suffered from a European hangover in recent weeks but, allowed to focus on their domestic form, they hammered Rovers at White Hart Lane.
Star man Gareth Bale began the scoring on his 100th league appearance when he got in front of his marker to convert Rafael van der Vaart's delivery in the 16th minute, and it should have been 2-0 on the half hour as Roman Pavlyuchenko wasted two glorious chances. First the Russian failed to beat Paul Robinson when clean through, and then he completely missed the target from the spot after a dubious penalty had been given for a foul on Peter Crouch.
Eventually Pavlyuchenko would find the net, and unsurprisingly it was largely down to the good work of Bale, who flew past Pascal Chimbonda before swinging over a cross that was begging to be converted by Pavlyuchenko. Crouch added a third with 20 minutes left after a Gael Givet error, and Bale completed a brace late on before consolations from Ryan Nelsen and Givet for Rovers.
West Ham remain bottom of the table after they failed to overcome Blackpool in a 0-0 draw at Upton Park. The Hammers move level on points with Wolves, but stay bottom on goal difference.
Ian Holloway caused a media storm in the build-up to the weekend, warning the Premier League not to tell him who to pick in his Blackpool line-up, but his team had a much more familiar look to it as the visitors featured 11 changes from the side that lost at Villa Park in midweek. The result was an open game of football at Upton Park, featuring the fit-again Mark Noble for West Ham, but Gary Taylor-Fletcher missed the best chance of the game as the scores finished goalless.
Wolves remain entrenched in the relegation zone after they failed to reproduce their encouraging recent form in a 3-2 defeat to Bolton. Mick McCarthy's men have given a real fright to Arsenal and Manchester United in their previous two matches, but they gave themselves a 3-0 mountain to climb at Molineux.
The stuffing was knocked out of the home side in the opening minute, with Richard Stearman sending the ball into his own net under pressure from Matt Taylor. Johan Elmander then doubled the lead with arguably his best goal in a Bolton shirt, twisting and turning before beating Marcus Hahnemann.
Stuart Holden made it three with little over 20 minutes remaining, but Owen Coyle's side were left hanging on after Kevin Foley and Steven Fletcher gave Wolves late hope.
At St James' Park, Andy Carroll failed to rubber-stamp his England call-up with a goal as Newcastle were held to a 0-0 draw by Fulham. Carroll has been widely tipped for an international call-up for the forthcoming friendly against France, but he struggled to make much impact against a Fulham defence well marshalled by Brede Hangeland. Newcastle's best chance came in the first half when Peter Lovenkrands, making a rare start, was denied from four yards by a tremendous save from Mark Schwarzer.
Elsewhere, Wigan completed a good week by inflicting a 1-0 defeat on West Brom. Victor Moses netted for the Latics, who climb out of the relegation zone with victory.