The first week of winter and already a season of discontent is settling on Wearside.
Another toothless 90 minutes by Martin O’Neill’s Black Cats had the natives in restless mood again yesterday.
Sunderland were not quite as abject as they had been in their tame midweek Capital One Cup defeat against Middlesbrough but they were bad enough to draw boos from their supporters for the second time in five days. At least they registered a shot on target – just the one, a 20-yard drive by Lee Cattermole in the 84th minute – which was one more than they managed at Stoke last Saturday.
The Wearsiders’ goal of the month competition for October was won by a Newcastle player, Demba Ba’s own-goal being the only contender. November promises to be just as bleak unless O’Neill can orchestrate a band of creative players who are as fluent as an Eric Morecambe piano recital.
Compounding the frustration for the Sunderland manager, as he vainly strove to conduct his team from pitch-side, was defeat at the expense of his former employers, guided by the captain of his all-conquering Celtic side, Paul Lambert. A 57th-minute goal by Gabriel Agbonlahor, his first in the Premier League since Bonfire Night last year, edged a thrill-less contest for Villa.
“This is a trying time,” O’Neill conceded, “but we’ll come through it. It will turn.”
Certainly, Sunderland look like a team in urgent need of turning. They have won just one League match in 17 now, stretching back to March.
The trouble is that the supply line to Steven Fletcher, their only Premier League goalscorer other than Ba, has dried up. The Scotland striker scored five in his first five games for Sunderland but has now gone five matches without finding the net.
While Stéphane Sessègnon, Adam Johnson and Sebastian Larsson laboured to get the ball anywhere near Fletcher, Sunderland’s failure to get a grip in midfield offered additional encouragement to Villa.
The visitors’ Belgian centre forward Christian Benteke flashed an early header wide, while Phil Bardsley did well to block a low drive from the edge of the area by Agbonlahor. It might have been different had Sunderland taken the big chance that came their way on the half-hour but Cattermole blasted a 20-yard drive wide of the target.
O’Neill’s men were indebted to Simon Mignolet for reaching the interval on level terms, their Belgian goalkeeper producing a fine save to thwart Andy Weimann. No one typified Sunderland’s lack of creativity more than Johnson. Ponderous in possession and lacking confidence, the England winger struggled to deliver any crosses.
It was different at the other end. Twelve minutes into the second half Matt Lowton crossed from wide on the right and Benteke nodded the ball down for Agbonlahor to score on the volley.
Sunderland did have their chances late on, though. Louis Saha, a replacement for Sessègnon, headed over from a Larsson free-kick and Villa were fortunate to escape without punishment when Benteke committed a clear handball. Sunderland themselves were fortunate, though, when Mignolet made a hash of a defensive clearance and had to redeem himself by parrying a Stephen Ireland shot on to the woodwork.
Not until the 84th minute was Brad Guzan called upon to make a save, gathering Cattermole’s drive at the second attempt, earning Lambert a second League win as manager of the Villans.
Sunderland(4-4-1-1): Mignolet; Bardsley (Campbell, 80), O’Shea, Cuellar, Colback; Larsson, Gardner (McClean, 67), Cattermole, Johnson; Sessegnon (Saha, 67); Fletcher.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Bennett (Lichaj, 11; Stevens, 71), Vlaar, Clark, Lowton; Westwood,Weimann (Holman, 86); Bannan, Ireland, Agbonlahor, Benteke.
Referee: Mike Jones.
Man of the match: Benteke (Aston Villa)
Match rating: 3/10