It wasn’t easy, but Aston Villa ground out a hard-earned victory at the Stadium of Light, recording their first Premier League away victory since January against Wolves, and pocketed three extremely precious points against former manager Martin O’Neill. The sides had drawn both meetings last year, 0-0 and 2-2.
It was Gabriel Agbonlahor who scored the game’s only goal, rocketing a knockdown from Christian Benteke past a helpless Mignolet against the run of play at 56 minutes. It was the first, second-half away goal for Villa since the win at Wolverhampton.
Sunderland, who’ve only lost once this season, to Manchester City, gave it everything they had trying to grab an equalizer, but their troubles in front of goal, even more profound than Villa’s, continued and their urgency went unrewarded.
For Villans, the lineup might’ve looked worrisome before kick-off, with Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood anchoring the midfield instead of Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph. At the end of the day, they both contributed mightily to the effort. Bannan was everywhere with several crucial defensive contributions, and Westwood was calm and assured. Paul Lambert continues to show faith in a full range of players, and was rewarded today.
Up front, it was Christian Benteke who was most influential again, getting his head on virtually every ball, making good runs, tracking back, and bringing others into the play. The Lowton cross to the far post that he knocked back to Gabby at the edge of the six-yard box was finally the right ball at the right time, but Benteke had been winning in the air the entire match, no small feat against the league’s second-best defense.
While Sunderland had come out of the dressing room for the second half with the better energy and intent, it was Villa who had once again looked most comfortable in the first half. Following an early wake-up call when Steven Fletcher was offside on the end of a Sessegnon pass to finish a well-worked break at four mintues, Martin O’Neill’s side offered little threat.
Even so, they still had the best chance of the half when Ciaran Clark made a crucial tackle/block on Sessegnon just inside the box at 28 minutes, sending him flying when only a second before he’d had the goal at his mercy.
Villa finished the half with four shots on goal, two off, versus none and two for Sunderland. Villa led corners 6-1, and trailed in possession 47%-53%, even though it didn’t really seem like that when watching.
The drama only built after Villa opened the scoring, the tension palpable for both sides. Louis Saha, on for Sessegnon, pipped Guzan to the ball at 72 minutes, and just narrowly put his header over the top.
At 76 minutes, Stephen Ireland, who’d had a very poor first half, found Andreas Weimann in a great position to score, but Weimann didn’t really get on it, with Mignolet saving easily, and the chance to put the game away went begging.
Just a minute later, Agbonlahor’s pressing forced Mignolet into a bizarre bicycle-kick clearance that fell to Ireland, who could also have put the game away if he’d done better. As it was, his attempt to volley fell to Gabby, who put it onto the outside of the post, but was offside in any event.
With Sunderland showing great urgency in their search for at least a point, it seemed almost inevitable that Guzan would be called into decisive action, and he was on 83 minutes, saving from Lee Cattermole, and then bravely beating Fletcher to the rebound and getting a kick for his troubles. And Bannan had a crucial cut-out and clearance to stop another particularly promising Sunderland attack in the final stretch.
Perhaps it was just the odds finally favoring Villa as they held on, but there was no lack of effort or application. Villa kept looking for a second until they almost comically set about wasting the final two minutes. In the end, they didn’t need it, even if they might’ve on most other days.
Three points were vital, and three points were what Villa got, along with back-to-back wins after the midweek cup tie. It’s still a work in progress, but the team has fight and can hold their heads high today.