SUNDERLAND picked up only their second away win of the season at Villa Park last night, but the fear is that they might well have lost something even more valuable in the process.
Phil Bardsley's ferocious 80th-minute winner settled a game that finished with both sides down to ten men following the second-half dismissals of Bolo Zenden and Emile Heskey.
But it was the serious injuries sustained by two Sunderland players that will have tempered Steve Bruce's satisfaction at a victory that keeps the Black Cats in the Premier League's top six.
David Meyler's return from cruciate ligament surgery has been one of the most positive stories from the first half of the season, but after leaving the pitch on a stretcher last night, it appears as though the Republic of Ireland international has suffered a recurrence of the career-threatening problem.
Four games into his comeback, and the 21-year-old is facing more surgery, another lengthy spell on the sidelines and a second gut-wrenching period of rehabilitation.
The hamstring injury sustained by Danny Welbeck in the closing stages of the game is not as serious, but given his fine recent form, Sunderland could do without their Manchester United loanee being missing for an extended spell.
There was still time for Asamoah Gyan to produce one of the misses of the season after Welbeck's 84th minute departure the Ghanaian sprung the offside trap, ran unopposed from the halfway line, but somehow managed to put the ball past both Brad Friedel and the post but he could be a pivotal presence if Welbeck is ruled out for a period of weeks or months.
With Lee Cattermole expected to be sidelined for at least three more weeks, Meyler's injury could prove even more costly.
It overshadowed last night's victory, which contained much of the energy and determination that has propelled Sunderland into European contention in the first half of the campaign, and came after 35 minutes of a match that had contained little incident to that point.
Having ruptured his cruciate knee ligaments in the penultimate game of last season, Meyler made his first appearance for seven months when he started December's goalless draw at Fulham.
He had shown no sign of anything untoward in his three appearances since, but fell to the floor in obvious agony as he tracked Stewart Downing towards the touchline last night.
The pain etched on Meyler's face was obvious, and a brief examination by Sunderland's medical staff preceded his departure on a stretcher. It goes without saying that a second cruciate injury in the space of eight months would ask serious questions about the Irishman's ability to recover full fitness again.
His departure last night resulted in Zenden partnering Jordan Henderson at the heart of midfield and, perhaps understandably, left his teammates in something of a state of shock.
As a result, Villa enjoyed their best spell of the game within the final five minutes of the first half, and would have taken the lead on two separate occasions had it not been for the enduring profligacy of former England international Heskey.
Heskey subjected both Anton Ferdinand and Titus Bramble to an intense physical examination, but strikers are supposed to score, and once again the veteran forward was found wanting.
His worst miss came in the 41st minute, as he contrived to side-foot Downing's cross against his own leg and up on to the crossbar despite being less than five yards from goal.
He was at it again four minutes later, rising unmarked to head Ashley Young's cross wastefully wide when it looked easier to at least force Craig Gordon into a save.
Heskey's scoring ratio must just about be commensurate with Steed Malbranque's, and the midfielder, who has only ever scored one league goal for the Black Cats, wasted the visitors' best chance of the night five minutes after the break.
Darren Bent headed down Ahmed Elmohamady's cross, but while Malbranque got himself into position to fire in a swivelled half-volley, the ball sailed harmlessly over the crossbar.
The miss came in the middle of a strong spell for Sunderland, with both James Collins and Carlos Cuellar producing crucial interventions to keep the scoresheet blank.
Collins blocked a Bent shot on the line after the Black Cats striker had taken advantage of a misjudgement from Richard Dunne to round Friedel and aim a hurried strike at the target.
Cuellar flung himself in the way of a goal-bound effort from Malbranque after Collins' weak clearance had landed at the foot of the Belgium- born midfielder.
The hosts' task was proving difficult enough with 11 men, but they were rightly reduced to ten when Heskey's night went from bad to worse in the 68th minute.
Villa's players refused to put the ball into touch when Gyan was down injured, and after Heskey clattered into Zenden, Henderson voiced his frustration.
The striker didn't like the advice', and pushed his hand into the Sunderland player's face. For such an experienced player, it was a particularly stupid act.
Initially, the Black Cats struggled to make their extra man count, and a goalless draw looked likely as the clock ticked past the 80th minute.
That, however, was not taking Bardsley's dramatic intervention into account. Picking the ball up 30 yards from goal after the Villa defence headed away a poor free-kick from Zenden, there appeared precious little on.
But without breaking stride, Bardsley arrowed a ferocious low strike into the bottom corner of the net.
That should have been the cue for Sunderland to run down the clock, but Zenden senselessly got himself sent off with five minutes left. Having been booked for a foul on the hour mark, the Dutchman picked up a second booking for an unnecessary foul on Stiliyan Petrov.
Match facts Goals: Bardsley (80, 0-1)
Bookings: Richardson (6, foul); Clark (29, foul); Bramble (42, foul); Collins (45, foul); Zenden (60, foul); Dunne (79, foul) Sending Offs: Heskey (68, violent conduct); Zenden (85, second yellow card, foul)
Referee: Peter Walton (Long Buckby) 4
ASTON VILLA (4-4-1-1):
Friedel 5; Cuellar 5, Dunne 6, Collins 5, Clark 4; Downing 4, Petrov 4 (Albrighton 88mins 5), Reo-Coker 5 (Bannan 88mins 5), Agbonlahor 4; A YOUNG 6; Heskey 3. Subs (not used): Marshall (gk), Lichaj, Herd, Pires, Delfouneso SUNDERLAND (4-4-2):
Gordon 6; BARDSLEY 8, Bramble 8, Ferdinand 7, Richardson 6; Elmohamady 6, Henderson 7, Meyler 5 (Zenden 39mins 5), Malbranque 6 (Gyan 55mins 5); Welbeck 7 (Riveros 84mins), Bent 7. Subs (not used): Mignolet (gk), Angeleri, Da Silva, Adams MAN OF THE MATCH
Phil Bardsley capped an excellent defensive display with a sensational longrange winner.