Milner magic skins Black Cats

Sunderland 0 Aston Villa 2
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In the wake of his club's first win at Old Trafford in 26 years, Martin O'Neill claimed he had not enjoyed a game for "about 20 years." At the Stadium of Light last night it was difficult to hear whether the Aston Villa manager was matching the decibel count registered by the Wearside housewife who was up in court yesterday for breaking the Asbo she had been given for making too much noise during sex. Still, there was no mistaking O'Neill's joy when his charges found their scoring touch.

The Villa manager turned from the touchline and punched the air in celebration when Emile Heskey finished off a peach of a move midway through the first half and when James Milner thumped in a cracker of a shot midway through the second period. Milner teed up the first goal and again stood out in his scheming central midfield role. "He's just been colossal for us," O'Neill said of the converted wide boy.

It was another fine all-round display, though, that took Villa above Arsenal into third place in the Premier League table, which is where they will stay at least until the Gunners travel to Burnley tonight. "I'm delighted with the performance and with the result," O'Neill said. "I thought we put both together tonight. We played some delightful football."

They did, that – with an unchanged XI, Stephen Warnock having recovered from the whiplash injury he suffered at Old Trafford last Saturday The question was whether the visitors would face a sustained backlash from Sunderland, whose uninspired form of late continued with a 1-1 draw at home to Portsmouth last Saturday.

The initial answer was in the affirmative, although once Villa had withstood the initial home burst – Lorik Cana glancing a header wide and Jordan Henderson sending a rasping drive narrowly off target – they proceeded to stamp their authority on proceedings. They did so with some delightful approach play that had the home ranks chasing shadows at times.

One such move, orchestrated by Milner, might have yielded an opener on the quarter-hour mark for Heskey had the centre-forward not had his legs taken from under him by George McCartney as he prepared to shoot from just outside the right edge of the Sunderland penalty area. Stewart Downing clipped the free-kick off the top of the crossbar but nothing could save the Black Cats when Villa pounced in the 24th minute.

Stilian Petrov was the prompter and Milner the link-man supreme, feeding a pass that cut through the heart of the home guard to Heskey, who planted a right foot shot past Sunderland goalkeeper Marton Fulop. It was no less than Villa deserved, though they did have to man the barricades to preserve their lead.

There was also a close call for Villa four minutes after the interval. A nod down by Darren Bent left Andy Reid with the goal at his mercy but the sometime Republic of Ireland wide-man sliced his effort wide of the target. It proved to be the pivotal moment in the contest.

It could have been all over for Sunderland in the 57th minute but Ashley Young steered a right-foot drive against the near post after a brilliant through-ball by Heskey. As it was, it fell to Milner to guide Villa into the comfort zone. He did so in style in the 61st minute, hustling to gain possession from a Sunderland throw-in on the left and holding off the attentions of Kieran Richardson before hitting the target with a thundering drive from 25 yards.

The next time the England midfielder got within range he was crudely cut down by Cana. Having already been booked, the Sunderland captain was shown a red card, completing a miserable night for Steve Bruce's side.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Fulop; Nosworthy, Turner (Mensah, 82), Da Silva, McCartney; Henderson (Cattermole, 71), Cana, Richardson, Reid; Bent, Jones (Bardsley, 82). Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Malbranque, Campbell, Healy.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Cuellar, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Heskey, Agbonlahor (Sidwell, 90). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Beye, Collins, Delph, Reo-Coker, Carew.

Referee: K Friend (Leicestershire).