After 90 minutes high on incident and high on controversy, Aston Villa departed Wearside last night on another three-point high after a fifth consecutive away win in the league, Villa's eighth of the season. It was achieved despite Ashley Young's 72nd-minute dismissal for an uncharacteristic two-footed lunge at Sunderland captain Dean Whitehead. At that stage the score was 1-1 but the 10 men won to keep Villa in a Champions' League place. Contrary to chants from Sunderland fans, Martin O'Neill is not having a laugh about that.
This was not Villa at their most fluent – Sunderland were the better side for the first hour – but once James Milner had equalised Danny Collins' opener, the last 30 minutes was all about Villa's guile and grit.
Milner's goal sparked claims of handball from Sunderland players and fans. As he charged to get on to Young's low cross, Milner went to ground and appeared to bundle the ball across the line with some part of his arm. However, given that he was tripped by Pascal Chimbonda on his way to the turf, Milner would have won a penalty anyway.
Villa's second, in the 80th minute, also came with the whiff of uncertainty. When Gabriel Agbonlahor seized on a routine long punt, Sunderland substitute Paul McShane caught the Villa striker. But the contact was not violent or heavy and it was just on the edge of the area. Agbonlahor fell, as forwards do, and his momentum took him into the box.
Referee Mike Dean, who had no hesitation in showing Young a straight red card, was again sure and instant in his reaction. Gareth Barry stepped up to drill the ball over Marton Fulop.
O'Neill agreed with Dean on both occasions. "I've not seen the goals on television but I wanted to see whether Ashley's was a sending off and I've no complaints. It's two-footed, he's diving in, it's a sending off," O'Neill said.
O'Neill's initial shock, like others, was that this was Ashley Young. "He'll be a big loss to us," O'Neill said of his winger's automatic three-game ban.
Young could probably do with the rest. Although Villa struggled to get around a dogged Sunderland for that first hour, the visitors retained the energy to go again. Central to that were Young, Barry and the impressive Milner. "I don't know where they found it today," O'Neill added, "they showed great resolve, great inner strength."
They had to. Missing defensive shield Martin Laursen, Villa's thinness at the back was exposed swiftly. When Carlos Edwards floated in an 11th-minute free-kick, Carlos Cuellar was supposedly marking Collins. But his challenge was nominal and Collins headed past Brad Friedel with ease.
Their confidence boosted by that, Sunderland came again and Friedel saved low from Whitehead on 27 minutes. Anton Ferdinand, watched by his brother Rio yesterday, was close with a header.
But the home problem was that while their defence and midfield were robust, the front pair of Kenwyne Jones and Djibril Cissé were anonymous. Jones has been the subject of a £15m bid from Tottenham and if the intention was in part to unsettle Jones, it looked as if it worked.
Yet Fulop had not made a save when Villa broke away from a Sunderland corner on the hour. Ricky Sbragia regretted the corner was a short one – Villa cleared it and Agbonlahor was suddenly in possession on the halfway line. There he fed Young who sped away from Nyron Nosworthy and teed up Milner at the far post.
Young and Whitehead then collided in the centre circle and it appeared as if Whitehead was badly hurt. Thankfully he was not. But Collins and Nyron Nosworthy were both forced off and McShane, recalled from loan at Hull, and Ferdinand, were at fault for the Villa penalty. Sunderland are not too good to go down.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Milner
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content