New Year be blowed: Aston Villa do not want December to end. A high-rise header by John Carew saw off Stoke and ensured a fourth win in as many Premier League games this month for Martin O'Neill's side, who must be considered as title contenders if they continue in their current vein.
Carew, who was on as a substitute after Emile Heskey suffered a groin strain, rose to convert Ashley Young's cross shortly after the hour. The giant Norwegian celebrated by kicking a corner flag into the crowd. Fortunately for him, the small boy it struck did not appear to be hurt and Carew showed a neat public-relations touch by going over at the end of the game to give him his shirt.
His fourth goal this season was backed up by a fourth successive clean sheet, though in truth this was not one of Villa's better displays and Stoke were unfortunate not to maintain the hold they established over their Midlands rivals last season.
In March, Villa held a top-four spot when Stoke, having beaten them at the Britannia Stadium, came down the M6 and departed with a point despite entering the final three minutes trailing 2-0. Tony Pulis' team had the chances to repeat the feat, only for Tuncay Sanli and Matthew Etherington to miss the target as the visitors mounted a spirited response to Carew's goal.
For O'Neill, the victory had to be viewed in the context of Villa's exertions at Manchester United and Sunderland over the previous seven days. "Considering the week we've had, it may well be our best win of the season," he said. "We really had to dig deep out there because I thought Stoke were dangerous all the time. We got the goal, which was great, but they were never out of the game. We had to get bodies in the way and then got over the line."
Pressed on whether Villa were now genuine rivals to Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, O'Neill body-swerved the question and changed the subject. "The players are showing a lot of confidence and desire," he said, highlighting a second-half challenge by a grounded Luke Young, which almost certainly deprived the lively Tuncay of a goal. "That epitomised our defending."
Pulis, whose side have now won once in seven matches, was angered by referee Lee Probert's decision to penalise Mamady Sidibe after he towered above Stephen Warnock to head in Etherington's 32nd-minute cross. "It's an injustice and I felt Warnock threw his hands out to make it look like he'd been pushed," the Stoke manager said. "We played well but just didn't give [Brad] Friedel enough to do."
Referee: L Probert
Man of the match: Milner
Match rating: 6/10