While still clinging to the hope of European qualification for next season, Brian Little admits that the effects of a bleak January on his side's fortunes have reduced the present campaign largely to one of re- evaluation.
The month encompassed a run of poor results in the Premiership stretching to six matches without victory and saw Derby comprehensively scotch Villa's hopes of a return to Wembley in the FA Cup. It was a period, Little says, in which he learned much about his players. This, in managerspeak, is a euphemism for working out who he wants to keep and who he will be seeking to ship out when opportunity arises. One wonders into which of these categories Savo Milosevic falls. Or, indeed, if Little himself knows.
On Saturday, Little's enigma scored his seventh goal from 22 matches this season, which proved enough to settle an uneventful contest. It also made the Serbian striker man of the match, which was just about justified. He did squander a couple of useful openings, but laid on two decent chances for Dwight Yorke and as such did as much as anyone to help Villa's cause.
His manager, however, clearly could not decide how much praise to offer. Even dressed up, it was not much of a goal; a shot hit with so little conviction that even its originator must have been surprised with the result, a deflection off a defender taking it past the goalkeeper Lionel Perez, who seemed momentarily mesmerised.
"Maybe the keeper could have done a bit more," Little said, resorting to the language of diplomacy again. "But it is good for a striker to score and it is good for Savo to score because when he doesn't everyone tells him. And he knows he needs to score some goals."
The remark betrayed much of how Little feels about the player he bought for pounds 3.5m on the strength of a video. He sympathises with him for the mocking he receives despite trying his best but at the same time must insist on a return on his investment; and 21 goals in 18 months falls short of what was required.
The Holte End could only shout their approval on Saturday; yet there were a few wry smiles in evidence as the public address announced that Stan Collymore had popped up with Liverpool's winner at Derby. The feeling persists among Villa fans that had Milosevic's proposed move to Perugia gone through last December then the maverick who once stood with them would have been wearing their colours on the field.
It might still happen, although for the moment Little is more concerned with restoring balance to his midfield, where the presence of Mark Draper, Andy Townsend and Ian Taylor is badly missed. The makeshift combination of Steve Staunton, Gareth Southgate and the unsettled Sasa Curcic were never able to dictate matters on Saturday, when a full-strength Sunderland would surely have taken home a point at least.
In the event, without Michael Bridges and Craig Russell, the Wearsiders were shorn of what for them passes as a cutting edge. Mark Bosnich was rarely troubled and Little, though unimpressed, had three points to make his troubles easier to bear.
Goal: Milosevic (36) 1-0.
Aston Villa (5-2-1-2): Bosnich; Nelson, Ehiogu, Scimeca, Tiler, Wright; Southgate, Staunton; Curcic (Hendrie, 76); Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Joachim, Farrelly, Hughes, Oakes (gk).
Sunderland (5-3-2): Perez; Kelly, Hall, Eriksson, Ord, Kubicki (Smith, 56); Bracewell, Williams, Gray (Russell, 83); Mullin, Rae. Substitutes not used: Holloway, Heckingbottom, Preece (gk).
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley). Bookings: Villa: Nelson; Sunderland: Eriksson.
Man of the match: Milosevic. Attendance: 32,491.