Wednesday, March 24, 2010. Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Villa Park, Birmingham
Villa Park, Birmingham
Things haven't quite gone to plan for Aston Villa since they lost out in the League Cup final to Manchester United almost a month ago.
Two disappointing draws - at Stoke City and at home to Wolves - have seen Martin O'Neill's men lose valuable ground in the hunt for fourth spot and Champions League qualification.
In fact, it's starting to look like a distant dream for the Midlands side as they lie five points behind Tottenham and - despite holding a game in hand - have a goal difference and win total that are nowhere near as healthy.
Sunderland, by contrast, have finally found some form after a terrible run over the New Year that saw the Black Cats fail to win in 14 games. That run was ended emphatically at home to Bolton Wanderers two weeks ago with a 4-0 pasting of Owen Coyle's men.
Since then Steve Bruce's boys have beaten the league's surprise package Birmingham City 3-1 and only a late Adam Johnson goal denied them an impressive win at home to Manchester City.
But on their travels Sunderland are still woefully inept, and haven't picked up maximum points on the road since an opening day victory at Bolton.
And they have to travel to Villa Park on Wednesday, a ground where only 12 league goals have been conceded all season and the home fans expect results.
This could be a good time to play Villa, just not away from home, and not if you are Sunderland.
Feb 2: Aston Villa 1-2 Manchester United (League Cup)
Mar 7: Reading 2-4 Aston Villa (FA Cup)
Mar 13: Stoke City 0-0 Aston Villa (Premier League)
Mar 16: Wigan Athletic 1-2 Aston Villa (Premier League)
Mar 20: Aston Villa 2-2 Wolves (Premier League)
Feb 20: Arsenal 2-0 Sunderland (Premier League)
Feb 28: Sunderland 0-0 Fulham (Premier League)
Mar 9: Sunderland 4-0 Bolton Wanderers (Premier League)
Mar 14: Sunderland 1-1 Manchester City (Premier League)
Mar 20: Sunderland 3-1 Birmingham City (Premier League)
Aston Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor has been ruled out of Wednesday night's home clash with Sunderland as he is still struggling with the foot injury that forced him to miss last weekend's 2-2 draw with Wolves.
In the continued absence of Agbonlahor, John Carew and Emile Heskey will again lead the Villa attack.
Villa also have a doubt over central defender Richard Dunne, who is battling to recover from a sore Achilles that forced him off during the second half of the draw with Wolves.
If Dunne is ruled out, Carlos Cuellar could move into the centre of defence with full-back Luke Young on alert for a re-call.
Last starting XI (v Wolves): Friedel, Warnock, Cuellar, Dunne, Collins, Downing, Milner, Ashley Young, Petrov, Heskey, Carew.
Steve Bruce will be relieved star striker Darren Bent has been declared fit, but Kenwyne Jones and John Mensah face late fitness checks before Sunderland take on Villa.
Striker Jones missed the win over Birmingham after picking up a niggling hip flexor injury against Manchester City.
Jones, who has scored eight goals this season, failed to shrug off the injury in time to face Birmingham, giving Benjani an opportunity to take over up front.
Meanwhile Ghana international Mensah was substituted during the second half of the Birmingham game after twisting his knee.
The pair have been put through their paces on Tuesday afternoon and Bruce will wait for the results of assessments before naming his team.
Andy Reid, meanwhile, has "no chance" of recovering from a hamstring injury in time to face Villa.
Last starting XI (v Birmingham): Gordon, Ferdinand, Hutton, Turner, Mensah, Richardson, Meyler, Malbranque, Bent, Benjani, Campbell.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Aston Villa - James Milner
The versatile winger is drawing plaudits from all quarters after a superb season in a number of positions for Villa. Starting off the campaign on the right wing, Milner has filled in at left midfield, left-back and central midfield.
He will be keen to impress Fabio Capello enough to be included in the Italian's Word Cup squad this summer, even if it means filling Ashley Cole's left-back void.
Sunderland - Darren Bent
Another player who perhaps deserve a call up to Capello's squad, Bent has been in fine form, hitting 21 goals this season, and knocking on the Italian's door.
Another goal on Wednesday and it will be hard for Capello to ignore the former Tottenham Hotspur hitman who has impressed this term.
Villa have not quite been the force they were earlier in the season in the last few weeks, but they face a Sunderland side who do seem to hate playing away. Expect goals, and most of them from the players in claret shirts.
Aston Villa 3 -1 Sunderland
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