Aston Villa 1 Stoke 0
John Carew came off the bench to keep Aston Villa’s Champions League push on target with the second-half winner against battling Stoke at Villa Park.
The Norwegian international struck his fourth Barclays Premier League goal of the campaign after replacing the injured Emile Heskey midway through the first period.
It secured a fourth successive win for Martin O’Neill’s side and completed a rewarding week after away wins over Manchester United and Sunderland.
This was an instantly forgettable game lacking in quality for long periods but O’Neill has often spoke of the need to acquire the winning habit when not firing on all cylinders.
With Liverpool faltering again at Portsmouth, Villa have a realistic chance of breaking into the top four.
O’Neill had voiced concern before the game about the unevenness of the midweek fixture list which had left Stoke without a game since their draw with Wigan eight days ago.
But his side showed the resilience needed to sustain a successful campaign with Richard Dunne and Carlos Cuellar outstanding at the heart of their defence.
Skipper Stiliyan Petrov was also a key performer in the centre of the park for the home side.
Stoke were far from overawed with Tuncay a threat up front but they have now gone four games without a win and will not want to be sucked into a relegation battle in the New Year.
Villa created the first real moment of danger after Stoke midfielder Salif Diao had brought down Ashley Young to the right of the Stoke box.
Stewart Downing’s dipping free-kick found its way through to Dunne but he directed his header wide when he would have expected at least to hit the target.
There was a lack of intensity about proceedings but the game came to life with former Villa goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen making a fine double save.
First he beat out a powerful 20-yarder from Petrov after Heskey had set up the opening.
Then the former Denmark international quickly reacted to block the follow-up attempt from Gabriel Agbonlahor with his outstretched leg.
Sorensen also got his body behind a shot on the turn from Ashley Young after James Milner had threaded an excellent pass through the Stoke defence.
Villa suffered a setback when Heskey picked up a leg injury in a challenge with Danny Higginbotham and was replaced after 22 minutes by Carew.
Glenn Whelan was only just off target with a low drive while Sorensen was relieved to see a deflected Milner shot fly just wide of his goal after good play by Downing.
Mamady Sidibe headed home a cross from Matthew Etherington after 32 minutes but the Stoke striker was adjudged to have fouled Stephen Warnock when challenging for the ball.
Carew came close for the first time a minute later, deflecting a near post shot just wide after attacking an inswinging centre from Ashley Young.
There was little sign of an improvement in the general play after the break with Villa lacking their usual attacking potency.
Carew had half a chance when Ashley Young played the ball into the danger area but he hurried his shot which flew over Sorensen’s crossbar.
Tuncay almost carved a goal out of nothing for the visitors after a mazy run inside the Villa area but the eventual angle became too acute and his shot flew across the six yard box.
An Etherington centre was only half cleared and Whelan should have done better from 15 yards out as he blazed over the bar.
It proved to be costly for after 61 minutes Carew put Villa ahead with his fifth goal of the campaign.
Ashley Young was the creator with his right-wing centre and Carew got in front of Abdoulaye Faye to head past Sorensen.
Stoke tried to retaliate and Luke Young produced a superb tackle on the edge of the six-yard box to deny Tuncay an equaliser.
Andy Wilkinson became the first player to be booked after 66 minutes for a challenge on Agbonlahor.
Etherington could have brought Stoke level after he but lashed his shot wide while Villa substitute Steve Sidwell was off target after Carew had set up the chance.