Peter Schmeichel is no longer, officially, Denmark's No 1. It is more than a year now since he hung up his international goalkeeping shirt. At the Stadium of Light yesterday, though, the old master managed to eclipse the young goalkeeper who has inherited his jersey in the Danish national side.
It was not a bad afternoon for the 24-year-old Thomas Sorensen. Beaten five times at Ipswich last Saturday, he had to pick the ball out of his net just the once when Ian Taylor headed Aston Villa into a 59th lead they held on to until the final four minutes.
When Emerson Thome stole behind the Villa defence to get his head to Julio Arca's right-wing free-kick, the diving Schmeichel almost got his hands to the ball as it headed for the bottom-left corner of his goal. He failed, by an inch or two, but the veteran Villan stole the show in the first ever meeting between the Premiership's Danish goalkeepers.
Indeed, had it not been for a brilliant display of Schmeichel's enduring excellence, including a superb penalty save from Kevin Phillips in the 15th minute, John Gregory's side would have had nothing to show for their efforts.
"He's been like that all season," the Villa manager said. "He's been an absolute inspiration." And a source of frustration for the opposition. "I saw him on the way out of the dressing room and I said I wanted to check his birth certificate," Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, said. "He looked 27, not 37."
Schmeichel, in fact, is 38 and he was at his sprightly best from the start yesterday, racing to the right edge of his penalty area in the early stages to dispossess Arca with a firm left-footed tackle. It was a typical Schmeichel stop, and so was the penalty save, which came after Mike Riley deemed Niall Quinn had been pushed by J Lloyd Samuel, a decision Gregory described as "shocking".
Phillips struck the kick firmly enough, but Schmeichel flung himself to his left and blocked the ball with a double forearm save. It was the England striker's third failure in four attempts from the penalty spot this season and possibly his last. "I'm going to let someone else have a go now," he said.
Sunderland still had their chances to get a grip on a game in which they enjoyed the vast majority of possession. Twice more after the break, though, Phillips was denied by first-class Schmeichel saves either side of Villa's breakaway goal, Darius Vassell crossing from wide on the right for Taylor to beat Sorensen with an angled header.
It promised to earn Villa only their second win in 11 Premiership matches, as Schmeichel snaffled everything that was thrown his way. The Sunderland supporters were turning their frustration upon Reid, an audible minority calling for the manager's head. But then, with four minutes left, Thome got his head to Arca's free-kick and Schmeichel failed to get his fingers to the ball just.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen 6; Haas 6, Thome 7, Williams 6, Gray 6; McAteer 7, McCann 6, Reyna 6 (Thirlwell 5, 23), Arca 6; Phillips 7, Quinn 6. Substitutes not used: Macho (gk), Kyle, McCartney, Kilbane.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Schmeichel 9; Samuel 6, Mellberg 6, Staunton 7, Wright 6; Stone 6, Taylor 6, Hendrie 6, Kachloul 6 (Barry 5, 68); Vassell 7, Dublin 6. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Boeteng, Merson, Hitzlsperger.
Referee: M Riley (Leeds) 6.Reuse content