Aston Villa 2 Sunderland 1: Carew's cutting edge helps Villa break into the top four

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If anyone can break the big four's stranglehold in the Premier League this season it could just be Aston Villa. Martin O'Neill's side maintained their good start to the campaign with a fourth win in six matches yesterday, coming from behind to overcome a Sunderland side who failed to build on their early promise. Putting aside the memory of their midweek Carling Cup defeat at home to Queens Park Rangers, Villa played with the assurance of a team that know where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Although this was a match that never quite caught fire, a third successive League victory, following away wins at Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion, continued to lay the foundations for what promises to be a rewarding campaign.

Villa have begun with the same starting 11 in all six of their League matches and the benefits are clear. There is a cohesion and a purpose about their play, from the no-nonsense attitude in their defending to the understanding enjoyed by their settled midfield line-up.

Sunderland, in contrast, are a work in progress. They too have made a promising start, but integrating the likes of Djibril Cissé and El Hadji Diouf could take time. Never the less, there was plenty in this performance to suggest they have enough quality to avert any relegation worries.

Although Sunderland started brightly and took an early lead, Villa quickly assumed command. Nigel Reo-Coker, Stiliyan Petrov and Gareth Barry never let their opposite numbers settle in midfield, while Ashley Young's trickery, John Carew's strength and Gabriel Agbonlahor's speed formed a potent attack. Ashley Young in particular was a constant threat, cutting in from the left and forcing Sunderland to double-mark him.

Cissé's goal highlighted a potential lack of pace at the heart of the Villa defence, but the former Liverpool striker ploughed a lone furrow in attack for the first hour and the likes of Diouf and Steed Malbranque rarely got far enough forward to offer support. "For all our decent play we definitely didn't test their goalkeeper enough," Roy Keane, the Sunderland manager, said afterwards, adding that he had no complaints about the result. Sunderland have developed a reputation as late starters, but they were in front here after only 10 minutes. Malbranque broke from midfield down the inside-right channel before rolling a beautifully weighted pass behind Martin Laursen and into the path of Cissé. The Frenchman was too quick for Curtis Davies and shot confidently past Brad Friedel.

The lead was short-lived. Eight minutes later Liam Miller fouled Ashley Young five yards outside the Sunderland box and from the free-kick the Villa winger curled the ball beyond Craig Gordon and into the corner of the net. You would have thought Sunderland might have been wary of infringing again so close to their goal, but after 32 minutes Anton Ferdinand needlessly handled the ball in a similar position. This time Young's free-kick was blocked by the wall, but the ball ran to Petrov, who played it across the six-yard line. The cross was slightly behind Carew, but the big striker cleverly improvised and back-heeled the ball into the net.

Until a characteristically late rally, Sunderland were mostly on the back foot, although Villa failed to create many more clear-cut chances. O'Neill felt that his team were feeling the effects of their fifth game in less than a fortnight by the end, but said he was "delighted with the team and their determination". He added: "They had a lot of possession and they were pushing us right at the end, but I thought we did brilliantly to fight back."

The introduction of Andy Reid brought some invention to Sunderland's midfield play for the last 30 minutes, while Daryl Murphy's arrival provided Cissé with some long-awaited support. While it would be stretching a point to say that Villa were hanging on at the end, they were clearly happy to hear the final whistle.