Sunderland 0 Villa 2 - analysis
If you didn't believe it before, then you should now.
This Villa team is no fraud, when it comes to the top four they look the real deal.
Goals in each half from Emile Heskey and James Milner – a stunning long ranger sure to challenge for Villa's goal of the season – ensured another huge test of their Champions League credentials was passed with flying colours at the Stadium of Light last night as Martin O'Neill's men leapfrogged Arsenal into third.
Of course, Saturday's win at Old Trafford was more than just your average victory given the stranglehold Manchester United have had over Villa in recent decades.
But last night, in its own way, was every bit as satisfying.
Why? Because of the manner in which it was achieved.
It was ruthless; it was resilient; it was almost easy. Villa looked like a good team, a group of players who each precisely knew their jobs and did them with the minimum of fuss.
Put simply, they knew how to win – the mark of a top side.
Sunderland are no pushovers, let's not forget, especially at home where they had been beaten only by Chelsea – and Villa in the Carling Cup.
We have been here before, of course, but there was rarely if ever quite that assurance about last year's team, certainly in defence, where they struggled in the absence of Martin Laursen in the second half of the campaign.
After last term's capitulation O'Neill knows better than to talk up his team's chances. The season, after all, has not even reached its halfway stage.
But, and this is a big but, if they can continue in this current vein they have every chance.
They have the second best defence in the league (only Chelsea's is better), in Milner they finally seem to have found the goalscoring midfielder every big team craves and, with Heskey now starting to fire, they have three strikers regularly chipping in.
O'Neill stuck with the same side from Old Trafford, with Stephen Warnock passed fit despite suffering whiplash.
Steve Bruce's boys kicked off defending the best home record outside of the top four, and it was they who conjured the game's first opening after eight minutes.
Jordan Henderson caught the eye for the Wearsiders when the sides duelled in the Carling Cup in October and the youngster gave another glimpse of his undoubted potential by unleashing a ferocious volley from Darren Bent's knockdown just inches over the angle.
There was an early booking for George McCartney a quarter of an hour in when he poleaxed Heskey a yard from the box with the Villa forward bearing down on goal.
Villa came within a whisker of punishing the offence when ex-Sunderland loanee Stewart Downing curled the free-kick against the woodwork.
The rebound was just out of Agbonlahor's reach before Warnock blazed over.
Dunne was Villa's defensive lynchpin at Old Trafford and the big Irishman was equally good last night, making one fine interception when he cleared a dangerous cut-back from Kieran Richardson.
Alongside him, Cuellar is finally beginning to impose himself on opposition attackers.
And a case in point was the way he bravely won an aerial 50/50 with the towering Kenwyne Jones, no less, which left him requiring treatment.
No player has made such big strides in such a short period.
Another recent signing who finally looks to have found his 'A game' is Heskey, who took his 24th-minute opener with the confidence of a striker in form.
It all started when Stiliyan Petrov seized upon a loose pass midway into the Sunderland half.
The Villa skipper showed wonderful poise, taking time to pick out Milner in space, his threaded pass found Heskey 10 yards out – albeit with the aid of a slight deflection – and the big man did the rest, drilling his shot inside the left post with relish. Bruce's boys were stung into action and began to force Villa back but, for all their possession, Brad Friedel had just one save to make before the half-time whistle.
But what a save it was.
Andy Reid, unmarked at the back post, looked a certainty to convert Henderson's deflected cross but Friedel made up the ground, diving across his goal to save with his body.
The home crowd became increasingly restless as things failed to go their way and a chorus of boos greeted the whistle.
And their frustrations grew yet further shortly after the restart when their team blew another gilt-edged opportunity.
McCartney's long ball was flicked on by Bent into the path of the onrushing Reid on the left side of the box but, with just Friedel to beat, the Irishman skewed his shot horribly wide.
It was a huge let-off for Villa.
But while Sunderland were having most of the possession, it was O'Neill's men who had by far the better of the chances.
They hit the woodwork for a second time on 56 when Heskey's delightful lofted pass sent Ashley Young clean through from the right but, with his angle closed off by Marton Fulop, the winger's decision to simply smack it almost proved inspired as it cannoned off the right post.
But it took just another five minutes for the killer second to arrive – and how it arrived.
Milner collected a Petrov knock-down, steadied himself, and let fly with an unstoppable drive which flew into the top-right corner.
That alone was worth the long journey north for the 640 travelling fans behind the goal and, fittingly, they were treated to the best view of the strike of all.
The outstanding Dunne had to be at his best to cut out McCartney's low cross with Jones ready to pounce.
A bad night for the Black Cats got worse on 79 when Lorik Cana saw red for a second bookable offence following a late lunge on Milner.
That effectively extinguished any hopes of a comeback for Bruce's men as Villa Champions League moved up another gear.
Now for their old friends down the road, Stoke, on Saturday . . .
By Brendan McLoughlin.
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