The odds on West Ham making one of their regular excursions into the division below were as short as 4-1 before last night's match. And after only a few minutes of play it was easy to see why. The visitors radiated confidence and understanding, playing as a unit from the first kick and working tirelessly to gain and keep possession.
Between them, Mark Draper and Ian Taylor soon had the midfield under firm control, and hesitancy in the home defence was apparent as early as the 11th minute when Steve Staunton was allowed to stride unchallenged towards the edge of the box before unleashing a shot that flew too high.
Only rarely did West Ham attack with any fluency, though an embarrassingly easy chance was created by Florin Raducioiu and spurned by Iain Dowie after 13 minutes. Finishing has never been Dowie's strongest point, but when clean through, 12 yards out, even he would have been dismayed to see his shot rebound to safety off Michael Oakes' legs.
Raducioiu, too, should have done better from the edge of the box with Oakes out of his ground, while at the other end Savo Milosevic's curling shot was destined for the top corner before Ludek Miklosoko intervened at full stretch.
It was with some inevitability that Villa took the lead on 37 minutes as Ugo Ehiogu arrived without serious challenge to head home Draper's corner.
Ehiogu was equally dominant in his more familiar defensive role as West Ham pressed after the break, though the game should have been beyond them just seconds into the half when Fernando Nelson found space in the box, but he shot wide.
As time wore on, the flow of ideas dried up completely and while the visitors were generally happy to soak up what pressure there was, the difference in thinking speed was summed up when Dwight Yorke's shot was barely parried after a quick re-take of a free-kick. Once again, it was all too predictable when Yorke was allowed a free header from Townsend's corner in the 76th minute and duly doubled Villa's advantage.
West Ham United (3-5-2): Miklosko; Dicks, Rieper, Bilic; Breacker (Bowen, 72), Bishop, Rowland (Lazaridis, h-t), Moncur, Hughes; Raducioiu, Dowie. Substitutes not used: Dumitrescu, Lampard, Sealey (gk).
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Staunton, Scimeca; Nelson, Wright, Townsend, Taylor, Draper; Milosevic, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Joachim, Hendrie, Tiler, Curcic, Brock.
Referee: M Riley (Leeds).