Sunderland grateful for Dunne's gift and Ireland's lack of sparkle
Sunderland 1 Aston Villa 0
Richard Dunne's latest own goal ensured that Sunderland not only extended their unbeaten Premier League run to seven games but recorded a rare win on a day when, once again, Stephen Ireland failed to sparkle in an Aston Villa shirt.
Steve Bruce believes his side should be challenging for Europe but first Sunderland's manager must find a way of combining the 4-5-1 formation which his players love, and affords them almost unprecedented defensive stability, with a renewed capacity to score freely.
If it has left the lone striker Darren Bent foraging on short rations while turning the team into draw specialists, the principal beneficiary of the switch to a five-man midfield has been Steed Malbranque. Revelling in a central role, the Frenchman retains the freedom to pull wide and, after drifting to the right, meeting Ahmed Elmohamady's delivery and deceiving Stilyan Petrov, Malbranque's superb cross prefaced Dunne's attempted clearance ending up in the Villa centre-half's own net. "Richard was a bit sad," said Gerard Houllier, Villa's manager. "I told him 'it happens'."
Bruce accepted his side were slightly flattered by the scoreline. "We've shown real resilience against a very good Aston Villa team and I'm delighted," he said. "But we've played better and not won this season."
Indeed, until Dunne's intervention, Villa had looked the likelier scorers with Stewart Downing directing a shot against the post after connecting with Ashley Young's through ball.
Houllier's players appealed for a penalty after Lee Cattermole appeared to impede Nigel Reo-Coker as the Villa midfielder burst into the area but Mark Halsey was not buying it. Minutes later, Emile Heskey squared the ball neatly for Ireland but, in a moment emblematic of his frustrating afternoon, Villa's "man in the hole" could not manage to squeeze it over the line from close range.
Despite struggling to feed Bent, Sunderland might have doubled their lead had Elmohamady's curling long-range strike not flashed fractionally the wrong side of the far post.
Brad Friedel was also forced to tip away Danny Welbeck's shot following another fine ball from Elmohamady. It will not have gone unnoticed that the increasingly admired Egyptian winger repeatedly burnt off Stephen Warnock.
Things were running rather less smoothly for Villa's most celebrated Irishman and, 10 minutes into the second half, Houllier replaced a clearly floundering Ireland with Marc Albrighton. It proved the cue for a Villa renaissance but Sunderland were reprieved when Heskey missed a sitter from Downing's cross.
Bruce's side switched to 4-4-2 to accommodate the introduction of their £13m substitute Asamoah Gyan and, with his defence reacting to the switch by dropping far too deep, Villa's counter-attacking opportunities subsided appreciably.
One such visiting raid ended with Simon Mignolet, the Belgian under-21 goalkeeper currently restricting Scotland's Craig Gordon to the bench, repelling an Albrighton shot to secure his third straight clean sheet.
"We should at least have had a draw," said Houllier, "but at times we gave the ball away cheaply. Technically, we weren't as good as we're supposed to be."