Aston Villa 2 Sunderland 1
Ashley Young made Sunderland pay for conceding two free-kicks in dangerous positions as Aston Villa came from behind to cement their place in the top four of the Barclays Premier League.
The Black Cats had taken the lead through Djibril Cisse after 10 minutes but Young quickly retaliated from 20 yards out after being brought down by Liam Miller.
Then Anton Ferdinand handled just outside the box and Young’s deflected free-kick found John Carew, via Stiliyan Petrov, and he grabbed the winner after 33 minutes.
But Villa were left hanging on for much of the second half as their fifth match in only 13 days appeared to take its toll.
The Black Cats enjoyed plenty of possession with Steed Malbranque impressing in midfield, while substitute Daryl Murphy also made a telling impact.
But captain Martin Laursen was again a rock solid performer at the heart of the Villa back four while Petrov and Gareth Barry caught the eye in midfield.
And on days when they are not at their best Villa can always rely on the potency of players like Carew, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young.
The first half-chance fell to Sunderland with Liam Miller controlling a low cross from Pascal Chimbonda and turning past Barry in inside the penalty area but his weak angled shot was easily dealt with by Brad Friedel.
Laursen had a good opportunity to put Villa in front when he found himself completely unmarked in the centre from a Barry corner but directed his header straight at Craig Gordon.
It was a prove a costly miss as within 60 seconds Sunderland had taken the lead through Cisse’s second goal of the season.
The influential Malbranque made a powerful run forward before releasing his French compatriot who nipped in between Laursen and Curtis Davies and planted a low shot past Friedel.
Villa attempted to strike back quickly but Carew was high and wide with a shot on the turn, although in the 18th minute Young brought them back on level terms with a stunning free-kick.
The former Watford player was brought down 20 yards out by Miller but picked himself up to drill a curling effort past the stranded Gordon into the corner of the net.
Then in the 33rd minute Villa went ahead through Carew with Sunderland again paying the penalty for conceding a set-piece some 20 yards out.
Anton Ferdinand handled unnecessarily and this time Young’s free-kick was blocked by the defensive wall.
But Petrov seized the loose ball, managed to drill a low cross into the danger area and the sharp Carew flicked it past Gordon for his fifth goal of the campaign.
Villa were now in the ascendancy and Barry climbed to meet a cross from Luke Young but his header flew straight at Gordon.
Carew showed his pace in getting to the byline and his eventual cross was spilled by Gordon but he recovered to block the follow-up shot from Barry.
Fourth official Steve Bennett took over the running of the line for the second period as referee’s assistant Alan Williams was injured.
Sunderland began the second half promisingly and Miller was only just too high with a dipping 30-yard effort.
Keane made a double substitution after 59 minutes, replacing El-Hadji Diouf and Miller with Daryl Murphy and Andy Reid respectively.
Agbonlahor nearly made Sunderland captain Dean Whitehead pay after robbing him in possession and his shot was deflected just past Gordon’s right-hand post.
O’Neill brought on James Milner for Nicky Shorey with 20 minutes remaining and he immediately created a chance for Barry whose volley was only just too high.