Consider Aston Villa's back four on Saturday: Nigel Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies, Carlos Cuellar and Luke Young. Then ask if one of them would make it into the defence at Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal. These are the teams Villa are challenging this season.
The box-to-box midfielder at right back? The very right-footed right-back at left-back? Davies from West Bromwich, Cuellar from Rangers?
One answer is that the missing Martin Laursen would make the grade – occasionally in United's case – but at a time when personality players are in such demand, Villa are demonstrating an older truth that a team is more than the sum of its parts. Under Martin O'Neill, they have something. They possess two excellent players in Laursen and Ashley Young and some fine ones in James Milner, Gareth Barry and Gabriel Agbonlahor. When John Carew is fit, he is effective.
But above all that, what Villa showed again on Wearside – where they fought back from one down and won the game with 10 men – is that they have spirit and cohesion. Even in the unlikely event that they peter out over the next four months, that gives the club a platform for the future. Compared to last season Villa are just five points better off, but they won only five of their last 16 games then. If they won 10 this season, a Champions League place could be theirs.
O'Neill's reputation as an alchemist is well-earned but Bobby Robson has always had a brutal assessment about management's key ingredient: investment. Villa, judging by Saturday's defence and reliance on Ashley Young, Milner and Agbonlahor, need to go to market. If they do, their improvement under O'Neill can be sustained and the top-four cartel fractured; if not, then Everton provide an example of the corrosive nature of punching above your weight match after match, season after season.
"I don't think we can keep going in the fashion we have," O'Neill said when the topic of personnel arose. "We've been going competitively since July 19 and it's been really hard work."
An extra defender and a new attacker are priorities. Kenwyne Jones has caught Villa's eye, though surely not here. Danny Collins scored an early opener but while the home midfield was durable, Villa broke away on the hour through Ashley Young and scored via the falling Milner's hand and torso.
Ashley Young was then sent off for a headstrong lunge at Dean Whitehead – "No complaints," said O'Neill – but the 10 men won when Mike Dean awarded a questionable 80th minute penalty which Gareth Barry drove home. It was a fifth consecutive away win in the league and Villa are now unbeaten in their last 10.
Their agitation is more comforting than Sunderland's who were fluent in patches but have no league win since Ricky Sbragia's position as manager was made permanent. Nyron Nosworthy has been lost for a month, Jones' future is uncertain and Djibril Cissé needs to apply himself.
Goals: Collins (11) 1-0; Milner (60) 1-1; Barry pen (80) 1-2.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Fulop; Chimbonda, Nosworthy (McShane, 61) Ferdinand, Collins (Bardsley, 61); Edwards, Whitehead, Tainio, Diouf (Reid, 81); Cissé, Jones. Substitutes not used: Colgan (gk), Leadbitter, Chopra, Healy
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1): Friedel; Reo-Coker, Davies, Cuellar, L Young; Petrov; Milner, Sidwell (Gardner, 74) Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Shorey, Knight, Salifou, Harewood, Delfounso
Referee: M Dean (Wirral)
Booked: Sunderland Nosworthy, Cisse, Fulop;
Villa L Young
Sent off: A Young
Man of match: Milner
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