Aston Villa 1 Sunderland 1

25 March 2010 10:48
IF FEBRUARY was fraught for all associated with Sunderland, then March has turned out to be magnificent.

Last night's deserved 1-1 draw with Champions League-chasing Aston Villa ensured the Black Cats will end the month unbeaten, and represented another giant step towards securing the club's Premier League safety.

Fraizer Campbell's third goal in four matches helped lift Sunderland 11 points clear of the relegation zone with seven games to play, and while John Carew's equaliser ensured their search for a second away win of the season goes on, the positive manner in which they matched Villa spoke volumes for their progress in recent weeks.

This was a completely different Sunderland to the one that had crumbled so meekly at the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea in recent months, with some slick passing combining with stout defending to neuter a Villa side that could yet end the season in the Champions League.

The quality of their performance only served to reinforce the sense of bafflement at the paucity of many of their mid-season displays, but at least Steve Bruce's side have struck on a successful formula when it counts.

Martin O'Neill's Villa, on the other hand, are stuttering at just the wrong stage of the season, and it did not take the Northern Irishman long to join the growing band of managers cursing the form of Craig Gordon.

Gordon made three crucial saves, and two of them came in the opening seven minutes to thwart close-range headers from Carew and James Collins.

The Scotsman has been in stellar form recently, and luck also appears to be on his side.

When he was eventually beaten by Ashley Young's whipped free-kick in the 19th minute, Collins inexplicably headed wide from no more than four yards after stealing ahead of Anton Ferdinand at the back past.

One of Villa's leading lights had already departed at that stage, with Emile Heskey hobbling down the tunnel nursing an injury that will be of concern to England boss Fabio Capello.

Heskey's absence gave World Cup rival Darren Bent the chance to further his own claims, and the Sunderland striker looked to have scored his 22nd Premier League goal of the season as early as the seventh minute.

Bent appeared level with full-back Carlos Cuellar when he latched on to Kieran Richardson's through ball and drilled a low shot past Brad Friedel, but the strike was disallowed for offside.

No matter. Fifteen minutes later, and Sunderland were unlocking the Villa defence once more. Richardson was the architect again, fashioning a precise pass to match Campbell's incisive run from the right flank, and the visitors' striker-cum-winger steadied himself adroitly before slotting home his third goal in four matches.

After flattering to deceive in the early months of the season, Campbell, who played the whole of the second half as an orthodox striker, is suddenly beginning to look like the player Manchester United were reluctant to let leave, even if his skewed shot on the stroke of half-time passed up another excellent opportunity after Bent's flick on had caught the home defence square.

Leading through Campbell's first effort, Sunderland really needed to get to the interval with their advantage intact.

Instead, with Villa's razorsharp midfield attacking from a variety of angles, the scores were level within eight minutes.

The effervescent Young was Sunderland's tormentorin- chief all night, whipping a succession of balls between goalkeeper and back four.

One was always likely to find its intended target eventually, and Carew was the man in question on the half-hour mark as he slid in at the back post to beat Gordon from six yards.

With the game continuing to ebb and flow after the interval, the Black Cats should have reclaimed their lead six minutes after the break, only for John Mensah to fashion an awful header from the edge of the six-yard box after Richardson and Jordan Henderson had combined to engineer a quick free-kick that bamboozled the Villa back four.

Mensah found himself completely unmarked, but his header ended up closer to the corner flag than the goal.

It was a miserable miss, and would have been punished within seconds had Gordon not produced his third superb save to tip Carew's low drive around the post, a stop that proved controversial after referee Mike Dean awarded a free-kick, only for the big screens at either end of the ground to confirm it should have been a corner. Who says there are no television replays in football

Still, though, Sunderland continued to match their opponents blow for blow, with Richardson prompting and probing from the heart of midfield and Henderson becoming an increasingly influential presence on the right.

Friedel saved from Bent with 15 minutes left but the visitors had their hearts in their mouths in the final minute as substitute Nathan Delfouneso blazed over from close range.


Goals: Campbell (22mins, 0-1), Carew (30, 1-1) Bookings: none Referee: Mike Dean (The Wirral) 4 Attendance: 37,473 Entertainment:

ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel 6; Cuellar 5, Dunne 6, Collins 6, Warnock 5; YOUNG 8, Petrov 6, Milner 7 (Sidwell 77mins), Downing 6; Carew 7, Heskey 5 (Delfouneso 14mins 5). Subs (not used): Guzan (gk), Young, Beye, Albrighton, Salifou.

SUNDERLAND (4-4-1-1): Gordon 8; Hutton 6, Turner 6, Mensah 6 (Da Silva 71mins), Ferdinand 7; CAMPBELL 8, Henderson 6, Cattermole 6, Malbranque 6 (Cana 82mins); Richardson 7; Bent 6. Subs (not used): Carson (gk), Bardsley, Kilgallon, Zenden, Benjani.

MAN OF THE MATCH FRAIZER Campbell Started in midfield, finished in attack, and produced his best display of the season

Source: Northern_Echo