Sunderland 0 Aston Villa 2

STEVE BRUCE had the pleasure of working with Emile Heskey at Birmingham and Wigan, but unfortunately he did not have the striker’s services to call on last night.

Instead the England international, sold by Wigan against Bruce’s wishes in January, was on hand in Aston Villa colours to pile further frustration on his former boss as Sunderland’s worrying run of form continued.

Heskey made the most of some defensive hesitancy midway through the first half to power Villa ahead and then James Milner, the former Newcastle midfielder, struck a stunning 25-yard drive just after the hour to seal the win.

While Aston Villa, boasting an array of English talent likely to board the plane to the World Cup next summer, climb to third and within five points of leaders Chelsea, Sunderland’s misery grows.

The appearance of Lee Cattermole for the final 20 minutes after injury will hearten supporters, but a run of just one win in the nine matches without him has inflicted real harm on Bruce’s chances of claiming a top eight finish in his first season in charge.

This was not the worst performance Sunderland have turned in this season, but to have lost for the first time at the Stadium of Light in the Premier League since the defeat to Chelsea on August 18 could have severely dented confidence.

To make matters worse for Bruce, he must head to Manchester City on Saturday without captain Lorik Cana, after he was sent off for two bookings by referee Kevin Friend.

At least he should have Cattermole to call on. Bruce felt that including the Teessider last night would keep any anxiety at bay in the aftermath of conceding a late equaliser against Portsmouth and to a degree it did.

Cattermole, who had not played since October 17 after sustaining knee ligament damage in the win over Liverpool, has shocked the coaching team with his early return to fitness.

And while his first start might come on Saturday, this was an opportunity for those holding down places to prove they can compete without him – even if the manager’s mind has already been made up.

Kieran Richardson, likely to move back to left-back when Cattermole returns, started in his preferred central role after suspension and he was lively without ever being instrumental.

Richardson’s appearance meant Jordan Henderson was pushed out to the right, but he was available through the middle to half volley a Darren Bent knock down a yard over Brad Friedel’s bar.

From that moment on Villa were more fluid with their passing, regularly bringing their interchanging wingmen Stewart Downing and Ashley Young into play.

And it was Downing, after Cana and George McCartney’s frustrations led to bookings for fouls inside a minute of one another, who floated a sweet 20-yard free-kick against Marton Fulop’s crossbar quarter of an hour in.

The danger signs were there and the last thing Sunderland needed was to make a mistake, which was what they did – twice.

McCartney, needing to impress with his place under threat from Richardson, wasted possession by missing his intended target in the middle, leaving Stilyan Petrov to pick things up.

The Bulgarian had the freedom to pick out Milner, who rolled into Heskey’s path and the England man struck low into Fulop’s bottom right corner having been played onside by Nyron Nosworthy.

If anything, though, the opening goal took the wind out of Villa’s sails. For the majority of the remaining 21 minutes of the first half Sunderland showed more composure, without threatening the visitors’ goal too often.

But when they did they found Friedel in good form.

After Henderson and Richardson exchanged passes down the left, the former’s chip to the back post from the by-line was met by a half-hit Andy Reid right foot volley that the American keeper belted away.

The best Sunderland chances fell to Reid but he was guilty of wasting an even greater opportunity moments after the restart.

When Bent leapt highest to knock down a searching long pass from McCartney, Reid charged through unmarked.

Instead of testing Friedel, however, the Irishman’s outstretched left shin guided the ball off target.

While there was quite rightly frustration being directed towards referee Friend for a number of strange decisions, Sunderland still had the possession to suggest they would claw themselves level.

Or at least that was the case until Milner took control of things himself.

Now playing centrally following the return to fitness of ex-Middlesbrough favorite and Sunderland loan recruit Downing, capitalised on sloppy Sunderland play to add a second.

After two home players failed to hold a Nosworthy throw in, Milner shrugged off the attentions of Richardson before unleashing an unstoppable 25-yard drive high into Fulop’s top left corner.

Ashley Young had already hit the post, after Downing had orchestrated a patient move through the middle, and from that moment on O’Neill could rest easy, with Friedel rarely tested.

The departure of Cana, for a second booking after his foul on Milner, hardly helped matters.


Goals: Heskey (24, 0-1); Milner (61, 0-2)
: Cana (13, foul); McCartney (14, foul); Milner (68, foul)
: Cana (79, second bookable offence)
: Kevin Friend (Leicester) 3
: 34,821
: ✰✰✰✰✰

SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Fulop 6; Nosworthy 5, Da Silva 6, Turner 6 (Mensah 82), McCartney 5; Henderson 5 (Cattermole 71), Cana 4, Richardson 5, REID 6; Jones 4 (Bardsley 82), Bent 5. Subs (not used): Carson, Healy, Campbell, Malbranque

ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel 7; L Young 6, Cuellar 6, Dunne 7, Warnock 7; A Young 6, Milner 8, PETROV 8, Downing 6; Heskey 7, Agbonlahor 5 (Sidwell 90). Subs (not used): Carew, Delph, Reo-Coker, Guzan, Beye, Collins

STILYAN Petrov – his vision led to the opening goal and was a calming influence throughout