Stoke may boast a 100 per cent record in four trips to Wembley, but they have still to win a top-flight fixture at Villa Park in 12 visits since 1965. In a tale of two headed goals by former Sunderland strikers, Kenwyne Jones rewarded the FA Cup finalists' early dominance before Darren Bent ensured the bulletin delivered to Gérard Houllier's hospital bed was not unduly bleak.
Allied to results elsewhere, the outcome means that both clubs are virtually assured of Premier League football next season. Gary McAllister, deputising for Houllier after the Villa manager admitted himself to hospital after suffering chest pains, felt his boss would be heartened by the way his players fought back after going behind to a Stoke team who "make it very difficult".
McAllister, the former Leeds and Coventry manager, had been to visit Houllier on Friday night, and when asked whether the signs were encouraging, he replied: "Absolutely. Gérard's had a tough couple of days but we have to be guided by the specialists. There's no surgery this time, only rest and medicine."
Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, was also left awaiting news from hospital, the substitute forward Ricardo Fuller having departed on a stretcher to have a scan on an achilles injury that may keep him out of the FA Cup final against Manchester City on 14 May. "Ric's a game-changer from the bench, and we haven't got too many of those," said an otherwise "delighted" Pulis.
Stoke deserved their lead midway through the first half – a goal which gave the lie to claims that Rory Delap's thrown-ins are no threat away from the narrow pitch at the Britannia Stadium. After much booing from the home fans, some indignant over the time eaten up by his cleaning of the ball, some seemingly out of ill-conceived moral outrage over the ploy itself, Delap's missile was met by the dreadlocked head of Jones.
Even before his 10th goal of the season, the Trinidadian had forced what Pulis called an "unbelievable" flying save from Brad Friedel with a header. The opportunity stemmed from a corner after the veteran goalkeeper turned over a textbook volley by Robert Huth, lurking on the edge of the penalty area.
Seven corners for Stoke in three minutes had Villa living on their nerves – few sides better exploit set-pieces – but they were pegged back before half-time. Kyle Walker's cross from the right saw Bent steal in front of Ryan Shawcross near the penalty spot and place a powerful glancing header beyond Asmir Begovic. The ball hit the far post before crossing the line for the England striker's seventh goal in 12 starts for Villa.
Villa carried a greater threat in the second half without forcing a save worth the name from Begovic, whereas Jon Walters and Fuller were each denied a winner by offside decisions. Both teams, however, appeared to sense that safety was now in sight.
Referee: Chris Foy
Man of the match: Friedel
Match rating: 6/10