Aston Villa 0 Sunderland 1: Black Cats earn vital lifeline

Chopra's late winner ends desperate away run and raises hopes of survival
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The Independent Football

They had waited more than nine hours for it, and when it came it sent the thousands of travelling Sunderland supporters into ecstasy. Michael Chopra's winning strike seven minutes from time at Villa Park yesterday was the first that Roy Keane's team have scored away from home since before Christmas and could go a long way towards preserving their Premier League status.

Sunderland richly deserved their first away victory of the season, which instantly doubled their points tally on the road. Against a ragged Aston Villa team who have faded badly in recent weeks, Keane's men played constructive football throughout, defended stoutly and would have won by a bigger margin with more composure in the penalty area.

A shortage of goals has been Sunderland's problem all season. They have found the net only 27 times in 31 matches, had gone four games without scoring and have been particularly goal-shy on their travels. Chopra's winner was their first away from home since his penalty against Reading in December and their first in open play since November.

When Kenwyne Jones went down with a virus on Friday, Keane might have feared the worst, but the manager admitted afterwards that the absence of his best forward may have been a blessing in disguise. Without their big target man Sunderland were less inclined to hit their passes long and Andy Reid, in particular, thrived on the closerpassing game they adopted.

Villa, however, were a pale imitation of the team who drew so impressively away to Arsenalthree weeks ago. Martin O'Neill's side have taken just one point from their three subsequent matches, and hopes of European football next season are fading fast. Gareth Barry, the captain, strived throughout to get his team going, but Villa's football never flowed.

The home side began confidently enough, John Carew narrowly missing the target with an athletic overhead kick from eight yards, but thereafter it was Sunderland who created the better chances. Roy O'Donovan had two outstanding opportunities in the first half, but first he skied a free shot and then headedover the bar after a fine cross by Daryl Murphy.

Had O'Donovan actually tested Scott Carson you would hardly have backed the Villa goalkeeper to keep the ball out. Carson's failure to deal with crossescould have cost his team dearly in the first half.

Danny Collins shot wide after the goalkeeper had flapped at a Carlos Edwards corner, while Howard Webb failed to punish Carson when he blatantly handled the ball outside his own penalty area after failing to gathera Collins cross. The referee also turned a deaf ear to Sunderland appeals for a penalty when Nigel Reo-Coker appeared to block Reid's shot with his arm.

The introduction of Marlon Harewood early in the second half brought some zest to the home attack, but the former West Ham striker wasted Villa's best chance within a minute of his arrival. He turned cleverly past Nyron Nosworthy but then shot wide with only Sunderland's goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, to beat.

Sunderland continued to scorn half-chances in the second half. Edwards shot over the bar from 25 yards, Reid scuffed his effort from the edge of the penalty area and Kieran Richardson shot wide of the far post.

When Grant Leadbitter wasted the best chance yet after 77 minutes, miscuing badly after Richardson's pass across the penalty area, Sunderland must have thought their winning goal would never come.

Six minutes later, however, Chopra, who had come on as a second-half substitute, raced on to Richardson's through-ball and confidently beat the advancing Carson from close range.

While O'Neill described Villa's performance as "very disappointing", Keane praised the spirit and commitment of his players. "We played some decent stuff and I thought we just about edged it," he said.