Sunderland hold firm after Dunne blunder

Sunderland 1 Aston Villa 0: Bruce's backline is more than compensating for lack of attacking options
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The Independent Football

It remains a damning statistic, but for the time being, at least, Steve Bruce might just let it slide. With the campaign into its third month, only two Sunderland players have scored. Such a paucity of options hasn't prevented Bruce's side climbing to – for them – the heady heights of seventh in the table courtesy of a seven-game unbeaten run, a welcome consistency the likes of which has not been witnessed on Wearside at this level for a decade, when they last finished in the top 10.

Richard Dunne, a player Bruce has attempted unsuccessfully to sign in the last 12 months, was the source of Sunderland's winning goal, with a lamentable attempt to clear a Steed Malbranque centre from the right after 25 minutes. The Irishman's untidy shank, admittedly impeded by team-mate James Collins, flew past Brad Friedel from five yards and was reward for the industry of Malbranque, who dispossessed Stiliyan Petrov before firing in another of his testing centres.

For the hapless Dunne, an eighth career Premier League own goal to put him clear of nearest "rivals" Frank Sinclair and Jamie Carragher, who have each put past their own keeper on six occasions. "I've told him not to worry," Gérard Houllier, the Villa manager, said. "These things happen and he'll win us games with the goals he scores."

Bruce all but concurred with his counterpart that victory for the hosts had been rather fortuitous. "We've played better and lost," he said. "We reverted to type if you like and got dragged too deep in the final 20 minutes but we managed to see it out against a very good Villa side. Seven games unbeaten at this level shows you we've got some resilience. We've invested in the defence and goalkeeper and it's paying dividends."

Darren Bent, with seven of his club's 11 goals this season, and Asamoah Gyan with two – Birmingham's Stephen Carr put through his own goal at the Stadium of Light on the season's opening day – remain the only Black Cats on the Sunderland scoresheet, but that modest goal-per-game output has proved sufficient to prosper so far thanks to a new-found defensive resilience in which the back four again all stood out individually, and, more importantly, as a unit.

This was their third consecutive clean sheet, the first time that's happened in the top flight in almost 11 years, and Simon Mignolet, a blossoming young goalkeeper who until recently was plying his trade in the relative obscurity of the second tier of Belgian football, has gone almost five hours without shipping a goal.

The 22-year-old was forced into fine late saves at his near post from Ashley Young and substitute Marc Albrighton as Villa staged a second-half onslaught which merited at least a point, but which came up short as the visitors tasted defeat at this venue for the first time in eight years.

"The difference between the first half and second was like night and day," said Houllier, who is likely to be without captain Petrov, who suffered minor knee ligament damage before the break, for up to three weeks. The Frenchman added: "We weren't up to standard before half-time, but for our display afterwards we felt we deserved at least a draw."

Mignolet saw to it that they did not, although Sunderland were not without a modicum of luck, the woodwork coming to their rescue when Stewart Downing latched on to Young's astute pass inside full-back Phil Bardsley before the interval, while after the break Downing's low cross eluded the Sunderland keeper only for Emile Heskey to produce what's becoming a trademark air shot in front of goal, with Young firing the rebound narrowly wide.

TV replays suggested the visitors had a decent early penalty claim after Nigel Reo-Coker went down under a combined challenge from Lee Cattermole and Titus Bramble. "Replays say it might have been a penalty, but let's not try to hide behind that," Houllier said, with refreshing candour.

Attendance: 41,506

Referee: Mark Halsey

Man of the match: Malbranque

Match rating: 6/10