GABBY Agbonlahor’s first Premier League goal in 12 months deepened the gloom around the Stadium of Light as Martin O’Neill’s former employers Aston Villa took a priceless victory.
In an encounter between the two lowest scorers in the division, it was Villa who bagged the only goal of the game just before the hour mark when Agbonlahor notched for the first time in the top flight since November 5, 2011.
Ironically, Sunderland were enjoying their best spell of the game when the goal arrived, yet the Black Cats’ attack was as limp as it has been all season after registering a fourth blank in five outings.
Sunderland managed just one shot on target, and that in the 84th minute, when Lee Cattermole’s shot from the edge of the area deflected off Louis Saha and forced Villa stopper Brad Guzan to gather at the second time of asking.
Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson both returned to the Sunderland starting line-up, but the big news came from the Villa camp, with former Black Cats hitman Darren Bent not even included on the bench due to a foot injury.
Gardner started for the first time this season in central midfield after recovering from a dead leg, with Phil Bardsley continuing at right-back.
James McClean’s 100 per cent record league record came to an end with the Republic of Ireland international left on the bench and Larsson, who also missed the midweek Capital One Cup defeat to Middlesbrough through injury, taking his place out wide.
Stephane Sessegnon started in the hole behind Steven Fletcher, while Jack Colback continued at left-back, with Danny Rose only fit enough for a spot on the bench.
Former Middlesbrough left-back Joe Bennett returned from suspension as one of four changes for Villa.
Sunderland had the ball in the net inside the opening four minutes when Fletcher finished off a slick move by lifting it over Brad Guzan, but the linesman had already raised his flag with the Scotland international marginally offside.
Villa were forced into a change in the 11th minute when Bennett injured his knee in a heavy, but fair challenge from Bardsley – Eric Lichaj taking his place at left-back.
But it didn’t disrupt the visitors and they were the better side in the opening 20 minutes, albeit without ever hurting Sunderland.
The Black Cats finally began to spark into life on the half-hour mark after Larsson and Adam Johnson swapped flanks.
Johnson almost conjured up the opener on the counter-attack when he rolled the ball into the path of Lee Cattermole, on the edge of the area, who placed a shot just wide of the near post.
Andy Weimann tested Simon Mignolet in the 38th minute with a low shot towards the near post from the right which the Sunderland keeper gathered at the second attempt.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 0 Aston Villa 0
Sunderland made a more positive start to the second half – Bardsley’s 53rd minute cross, brushing off the fingers of Brad Guzan, which distracted the waiting Larsson who could only head over the top.
But against the run of play, Villa took the lead in the 57th minute.
Matthew Lowton lifted in the ball from the right, Christian Benteke peeled away from Carlos Cuellar at the back post and got above Bardsley to head down into the path of Agbonlahor stabbed in from six yards out.
Sunderland went close to a leveller in the 72nd minute when Larsson whipped in a free-kick from the right and substitute Louis Saha got to the ball ahead of Guzan, but could only send his glancing header over the top.
But Villa should have doubled their advantage four moments later when Weimann could only fire straight into the midriff of Mignolet after a smart break from the visitors.
Sunderland finally tested Guzan with six minutes to go when Cattermole collected a short-corner on the edge of the area and let fly with a low shot that deflected off Saha and was gathered by the goalkeeper at the second time of asking.
Substitute Fraizer Campbell almost rescued a point for Sunderland in stoppage time, but sent his near post header wide from fellow replacement McClean’s left wing cross.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 0 Aston Villa 1
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Bardsley (Campbell 81), Cuellar, O’Shea, Colback, Larsson, Gardner (McClean 67), Cattermole, Johnson, Sessegnon (Saha 68), Fletcher. Subs not used: Rose, Kilgallon, Vaughan, Westwood. Booked: Bardsley (33), Fletcher (89)
VILLA: Guzan, Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Bennett (Lichaj 11, Stevens (72)), Ireland, Bannan, Westwood, Agbonlahor, Weimann (Holman 85), Benteke. Subs not used: Given, Albrighton, Delph, Bowery. Booked: Lichaj (45), Clark (68), Benteke (80)