Late Phil Bardsley cracker gives the visitors all three points in whirlwind affair
A lively encounter between Aston Villa and Sunderland was settled by a late Phil Bardsley strike which saw the Midlands club slip into the bottom three after a 1-0 win.
The home side were made to pay for their wasteful nature in front of goal, with Emile Heskey guilty of what could be the miss of the season so far. His misery was further compounded when he was saw red for raising his hand to the face of Jordan Henderson, yet he was joined in an early bath by Boudewijn Zenden who was dismissed for two pointless bookings.
The Black Cats, however, will be buoyed by a hard earned victory in a game played at hundred miles an hour which sees them go just two points behind stuttering champions Chelsea.
The game sprung into life around the five minute mark when Emile Heskey burst through on goal following a long ball from Brad Friedel. The ex-England man was ruthlessly and perhaps unneccesarily brought down by Kieran Richardson, leading to a yellow card for the midfielder and a wasted free kick slammed into straight into the wall by Stewart Downing.
Aston Villa certainly had the better of the early exchanges forcing a couple dangerous corners and free kicks, but it was when Jordan Henderson swung in a corner up the other end for the visitors that Villa looked most like breaching the Black Cat's back four.
A smart counter attack saw Stiliyan Petrov freed by a fantastic pass from inside his own penalty area by Gabby Agbonlahor. Petrov's first time release set Nigel Reo-Coker through on goal but the recently-recalled midfielder went down, a bit too easily, under pressure from the covering defenders.
The game soon settled into a frantic pace which saw both teams fail to control both the game and the ball itself. Reo-Coker gave the home fans a glimpse of quality when he threaded a through ball straight into the path of Ashely Young, but the winger's miscue when trying to collect the pass was indicative of the game's scrappy nature.
Sunderland were characterised by a lack of cutting edge in the final third and when Kieran Richardson found himself in space just outside the left-hand side of the box his wasteful effort on goal drew glares from the serially deprived Sunderland front pairing.
By the half hour mark the tempo slowed down, yet both teams struggled to find any rhythm or create any clear-cut efforts on goal. With the game devoid of any incisiveness in the final third, youngster Ciaran Clark found himself at the centre of most of the talking points in a mad five minute spell.
Firstly, the defender earned himself a yellow card for a needless foul on Petrov. Secondly, he gave the ball away cheaply on the edge of the box, but to no Sunderland avail, then finally he found himself very lucky to escape both a red card and the conceding a penalty when he handled a cross from Phil Bardesley.
A nasty looking injury to David Meyler after he jarred his knee in a rather innocuous challenge proved the catalyst to some goalmouth action. His replacement, Boudewijn Zenden attempted to usher a harmless Villa ball out for a goalkick, but after he was caught out by Downing, his low driven cross was missed in quite extraordinary fasion by Heskey, who cannoned the ball off the bar from no more than three yards out.
Heskey's wasteful form in front of goal was further compounded when some tidy footwork by Ashley Young down the right flank saw Heskey rise, unmarked, yet power his header well wide with the goal at his mercy.
The second half began in a manner almost unfamiliar to anyone watching the first, as Sunderland began to take the impetus. A nod down from Darren Bent saw the ball drop to Steed Malbranque, but with the imposing Villa centre-halves baring down on him, the Frenchman could only see his drive from eight yards rise over the bar.
Sunderland continued to assert their dominance and a hoofed ball up into the clouds by Titus Bramble bewildered James Collins whose hestitancy let Bent through on goal. After rounding Friedel however, Bent's scuffed finish dribbled goalwards and was cleared by the desperately recovering Collins.
The game continued to look stretched and an enterprising run with the ball at his feet right round the back of the Sunderland defence saw the otherwise subdued Agbonlahor slam a shot straight into the arms of Craig Gordon.
Controversy soon ensued when Henderson antagonised a clearly frustrated Heskey. Words were exchanged and Heskey raised his hands, pushing Henderson in the face. After deliberating with the other officials, referee Peter Walton had no choice but to show Heskey the red, even given the hangbags at dawn nature of the exchange.
With Villa reduced to 10 men, the attacking triumvirate of Bent, Danny Welbeck and substitute Asamoah Gyan failed to look particularly effective against the hosts, who seemed content to put men behind the ball and attack at set pieces. Such tactics afforded them a half-chance at goal, but when the ball dropped to Richard Dunne he failed to show any predatory instinct, the lack of which haunted his team in the first half.
The deadlock was finally broken in the eightieth minute. After gaining a freekick right on the edge of the box, Zenden seemed to have wasted the opportunity when he leathered it straight into the wall. The ball eventually found its way to Phil Bardsley, who, from 25-yards out, teed it up and smashed it through a forest of players and straight past a dumbstruck Friedel.
The teams were evened out soon afterwards, when substitute Zenden was shown a second yellow after foolishly clattering into Petrov from behind. This barely deterred the visitors, who soon found themselves with a glorious chance to double their lead. The ball broke to Gyan, who quite fortuituously found himself onside and in acres of space. As he closed down on Friedel, the African player of the year sidefooted woefully wide, before casting an accusatory, yet incorrect, stare at the Villa Park surface.
In the closing minutes, the home side tried to make advantage of once again being on a level playing field, but a staunch Sunderland defence dug in and completing a hard-earned away victory.