Villa back on track with win at Sunderland
Aston Villa started the New Year with a much-needed win, beating Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light thanks to Gabriel Agbonlahor's early strike.
Agbonlahor pounced on poor defending to give Villa the lead and the visitors then held on to end a run of five games without a win and inflict a first defeat in six matches in all competitions on the home side.
Gus Poyet's Sunderland remain bottom of the table and see the gap to safety increase to four points, while Villa rise to 11th with a victory that eases some of the pressure on manager Paul Lambert.
The visitors were looking to continue their good recent record against Sunderland, with whom they drew 0-0 at Villa Park in late November, and Sunderland's hopes of extending their impressive festive period form were not helped by the absence of several key performers.
Defensive duo John O'Shea and Wes Brown were absent while both Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson were only on the bench having been pre-match doubts, and while Sunderland started brightly, poor defending saw them gift Villa the opener with a quarter-of-an-hour played.
Lee Cattermole was caught out after Valentin Roberge attempted a pass across defence and Agbonlahor pounced to round goalkeeper Vito Mannone and put Villa into the lead with his second goal in as many games.
Villa captain Ron Vlaar then deflected a goal-bound shot from Jack Colback behind for a corner as Sunderland toiled, despite monopolising possession in the first half.
Indeed, while visiting 'keeper Brad Guzan had little to do in the opening period, only a good Mannone save prevented Agbonlahor from making it 2-0 following a neat flick by Christian Benteke, who started the game having been a fitness doubt before kick-off.
The pattern was much the same after the break as Mannone - who had been outstanding in the Boxing Day victory at Everton - got down well to beat clear Leandro Bacuna's shot from 25 yards which took a deflection off Roberge.
Sunderland, who had not won any of their nine games against bottom-half opposition this season coming into this encounter, were denied an equaliser when Borini, on as a half-time substitute for Cattermole, converted a Steven Fletcher knock down only for the offside flag to cut short his celebrations.
And Villa again missed chances to add to their lead as a Benteke effort was cleared off the line by Phil Bardsley and Mannone thwarted substitute Marc Albrighton.
Lambert's side continue to average less than a goal a game this season but their margin of victory would certainly have been greater without the inspired form of Sunderland's Italian 'keeper.