Sunderland hold Villa to punish O'Neill for pushing tired legs
BILLED as a game that would prove decisive in demonstrating Aston Villa's chances of finishing fourth, this match neither spelt the end of their challenge nor offered any indication that they have what it takes to qualify for the Champions League.
Goals from John Carew and Sunderland's Fraizer Campbell cancelled each other out, although Martin O'Neill will be furious that referee Mike Dean failed to see Michael Turner's blatant handball in the area which could have led to Villa snatching victory.
Villa will be mightily relieved that Manchester City lost to Everton, but this was a chance to move within two points of Spurs -- one which they failed to take.
It was an indication of the significance of this fixture in O'Neill's eyes that he chose to start with James Milner and Richard Dunne despite both being fitness doubts and despite having promised to rotate his squad.
Milner's problems seem to be a case of wear and tear, but Dunne has a strained Achilles and came off early, in some pain, against Wolves last weekend. Judging by his reluctance to go forward for corners, he was wary of pushing himself on this occasion.
It is a risky policy fielding a lame defender against the likes of Darren Bent and Campbell, and an extra spring in his step would have come in useful when Kieran Richardson spotted an intuitive run by Campbell. Superlative though his pass was, one couldn't help feeling that Villa could have responded more quickly to the starter's gun.
Once free of Collins and Dunne, Campbell was never going to be stopped.
O'Neill stood rooted to the spot, probably trying to work out the exact reasons why his side were suddenly behind.
After all, James Collins had already gone close with two headers. Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon had blocked the first and Collins had nodded the second wide of the target.
A Carew header from Ashley Young's cross had come to nothing but it was a case of sooner rather than later when this deadly pair would find a way through.
Young was in peak form, the sense of anticipation when he had the ball at his feet apparent to all, and the winger's cross from the right flank in the 22nd minute left Carew with little to do but touch the ball in at the far upright for his eighth goal in six games.
Yet Villa's defence remained vulnerable after the break and Bent wasted a good opportunity. (© Daily Telegraph, London)