Aston Villa 0
This was a bitter sweet night for Sunderland manager Steve Bruce. Abused by the Villa fans for a previous spell in charge at local rivals Birmingham City he must have enjoyed seeing his side deservedly capture all three points courtesy of a 25 yard pile-driver from full-back Phil Bardsley ten minutes from time.
Much less satisfactory were injuries to on-loan striker Danny Welbeck and considerably more worringly, to young midfielder David Meyler, whose future in the game must be in doubt after he collapsed to the ground with what was later diagnosed as his second cruciate knee damage injury in less than a year. Just back, Meyler seemed set for a big future and it is to be hoped he can make a full recovery.
In the truth the stick Bruce got from the home fans was tame compared to what they heaped on one or two of their own misfiring players and in particular manager Gerard Houllier at the end of a game in which, with Wolves beating Chelsea, saw Villa slump into the relegation zone. Hardly ideal preparation for a match against Birmingham City when Premier League action resumes in ten days time, a game many of those following the Claret and Blue feel should be faced with a new manager, bellowing out “Your getting sacked in the morning.”
Certainly it’s difficult to see where Villa’s next victory might come from, especially when someone as experienced as Emile Heskey can only manage to hit the bar from three yards after Stewart Downing pulled the ball back to the England international standing in front of an open goal. Always impressive outside the box and great at bringing his teammates into play Heskey has always flattered to deceive in front of goal and this was no exception.
However his manhandling of Jordan Henderson’s neck certainly was out of character and, although it took the intervention of the fourth official to confirm what had taken place, it was no surprise when referee Peter Walton produced the red card.
Already struggling to stay in the game, after Sunderland had pushed forward by bringing on substitute Asamoah Gyan to partner Welbeck and Darren Bent up front, the home side were forced to defend even more deeply. As half chance were made and missed it looked like Villa might even get away with a point before Bardsley, who had never previously scored a Premier League goal, surprised even himself by powering an unstoppable shot that had the Wearsiders in the crowd dancing with joy.
It should have been two soon afterwards but Gyan, clean through with Bent alongside him, somehow managed to drag his shot wide of Brad Friedel’s goal. The home side were then given a lifeline when substitute Bolo Zenden received a second yellow card for an innocuous challenge on Stiliyan Petrov and joined Heskey for an early bath.
Villa pushed forward but in doing so left themselves open at the back and only the inability of Gyan and Bent to stay onside prevented further away goals. Not that it mattered come the final whistle with Sunderland’s three points pushing them to within touching distance of a European Champions League place. Yet with a list of injuries to contend with it seems unlikely the north-east side can maintain a challenge for a spot that two seasons ago seemed within reach of a Villa side that have gone steadily backwards ever since.