Scintillating play on the flanks, especially in the first half and especially on the right,and shaky defending more or less throughout sounds like a recipe for a 3-3 draw.
Thanks to a lot of wayward finishing at both ends, and the emergence of Richard Dunne as our joint second top scorer, Sunderland did just enough to double our tally of victories to make the first nine games a much more respectable W2 D6 L1 Pts12.
No illusions that this was an especially bright or reassuring display.
Villa dominated possession for long spells. Cattermole had perhaps his worst full 90 minutes, passes going astray long and short and the ball simply given away at key, dangerous moments. Turner was never a rock at the back and even Bramble was less commanding than in previous weeks as Emile Heskey showed his qualities of vision and strength.
Fortunately, Bardsley had as impressive game as I can recall – and even came up with a screaming long range effort that deserved to be inches to the right and in the net – and Mignolet was once again, save for a couple of hesitant moments, magnificent in goal.
Add to that Villa’s wasteful finishing and we could have won the game more comfortably even though Gerrard Houllier will doubtless feel aggrieved that his team took nothing from it.
The winner came early, from one of the superb moves on the right that gave us first-half hopes of a thumping win (even if Villa had already gone close too). Malbranque worked tenaciously to get himself the opportunity to send over an enticing cross that Dunne finished on our behalf with flourish.
Despite Villa’s determined rally after the break, Sunderland had decent chances to extend the lead. Bent should have done better when just about through on goal but can be excused on two grounds: the effect of having worked phenomenally up front in Steve Bruce’s now standard 4-5-1 formation, and a superb defensive challenge as he prepared to shoot.
Gyan had less excuse, on as a sub and through in stoppage stime on goal only to skew his shot well wide with Bent in a terrific position, maybe unseen, to his right.
Young and Downing both had their moments, advancing with purpose but insufficiently clinical final balls. It was the sort of game we would probably have drawn or even lost in previous seasons and that simple fact makes the three points all the more satisfying.
Two parting thoughts. I would love to hear Michael Turney say publicly that he did NOT try to persuade the ref to send off Heskey shortly after his opponent had been booked. And the ref? We could quarrel with one or two decisions – Bardsely’s booking looked harsh, Downing’s dive might have been punished – but Mark Halsey, welcome back from his recovery from cancer, had a generally excellent game.