“It is a surprise because when you play Arsenal you expect a difficult game,” said Ferguson, who had banned the state broadcaster because of a dispute over a 2004 documentary about his son Jason, then a sports agent. “Overall we are very satisfied that we kept the performance levels up.”

If the quote was somewhat dull, the action on the field certainly was not. United’s performance was one of the finest in EPL history, yet even then was only just enough to go to the top of the table on goal differential at the end of a scoring-filled weekend.

That was because local rival Manchester City had already set a ferocious pace earlier in the day, traveling to Tottenham for a 5-1 rout. Both United and City have now won three straight and are the only teams with a perfect record remaining, even at this early stage of the season.

Arsenal might be a shadow of its former self, so much so that manager Arsene Wenger could be facing the sack, but this was still an eye-opening, rollicking and monumental signal of intent for the campaign.

City’s emergence, funded by its monstrous spending, has clearly made its neighbor better, sharper and hungrier. Ferguson and his men are the defending EPL champions and have no wish to relinquish the top spot in either their city or the nation, and look as good as ever despite the retirement of influential midfielder Paul Scholes and a failure to recruit Wesley Sneijder over the summer.

United’s great day was largely orchestrated by the resurgent Wayne Rooney, who scored and penalty and hat trick courtesy of two spectacular free kicks – and even had time for another delicate chip that hit the post.

“The performance today was incredible, and we deserved the result,” said Rooney. “Whether or not Arsenal have a full-strength squad every time we play them, we have to go and try to score. They had some players out but that should take nothing away from us.”

Ashley Young added two more goals, with one each for Park Ji-Sung, Nani and Danny Welbeck. It was Welbeck who began the rout early on, before suffering a hamstring injury that could keep him out for five weeks.

Earlier, City’s display at Tottenham was a special day for Edin Dzeko, the Bosnian striker who has struggled since his expensive move last year. Dzeko struck four goals as Tottenham, tipped for a top-five finish at the start of the season, were comprehensively mowed down.

While Chelsea cannot be discounted under new coach Andre Villas-Boas, it does seem right now as if there are two outstanding teams in the EPL – and they are situated just down the road from each other.

At this point last year it looked as if it might be the tightest race in years, even though it didn’t turn out that way as United finished nine points clear.

This time it looks to be a two-horse race, with the difference in quality there for all to see. For United and City, the real difference lies in their strength in depth. When Welbeck got injured, Ferguson could turn to Javier Hernandez as his replacement off the bench.

City’s roster also is stacked, with Dzeko not even one of manager Roberto Mancini’s first choices.

For some, the dominance of the leading teams is not necessarily healthy for the game, but there can be no denying that the intriguing intra-city element could be the cornerstone of this year’s title race.

Ferguson Whatever drama unfolds may depend on how closely City can stick to United’s coattails, but either way, it seems that the standard at the summit of the English game is now higher than ever.

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