Gabriel Agbonlahor scored his first goal in 29 Premier League games to give Aston Villa a 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
Agbonlahor, whose last league goal was back in November last year, netted the game’s only goal from close range in the 57th minute to give Villa their first away league win in 14 matches in the process.
It was a hard-fought win for Paul Lambert’s side in a match devoid of quality in the final third, and the result left his former manager Martin O’Neill in despair as boos rung out around the ground at full-time with the hosts having again failed to find the back of the net.
Darren Bent was left out of the Villa matchday squad to face his former side after he injured a foot in training, and Lambert restored Brad Guzan, Joe Bennett, Ciaran Clark and Ashley Westwood to his team; O’Neill, meanwhile, replaced Keiren Westwood, David Vaughan and Louis Saha with Simon Mignolet, Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson.
The out-of-form Black Cats came into the match looking to halt a nightmare run that has seen them win just once in 16 Premier League games stretching back to March, while being the lowest scorers in the top four divisions in England with six draws in eight matches, but early promise would belie their lack of confidence.
Villa, meanwhile, were without an away win since January, but the visitors did manage to dictate much of the play in the first half with Christian Benteke a constant threat with his power and presence.
Steven Fletcher, who has scored five of Sunderland’s six league goals so far this season, thought he had grabbed another after he latched on to a precise through ball from Stephane Sessegnon and coolly lifted the ball over the onrushing Guzan - but a very late offside flag halted him in his tracks as he wheeled away to celebrate.
Lambert had to make an enforced change as early as the 10th minute after defender Joe Bennett was scythed down by Phil Bardsley, who caught him with a nasty late challenge, and Eric Lichaj was immediately introduced as a result.
A barrage of pressure from Villa midway through the first half saw Benteke thrive, with the forward at the forefront of everything in and around the box, but six first-half corners did not lead to a clear-cut chance as Sunderland defended stoutly.
In a match in which goalscoring opportunities were at a premium, the entire ground did at least appreciate the quality of an impeccable challenge from Clark as the defender produced a last-gasp intervention to deny Sessegnon from inside the six-yard box.
Agbonlahor squandered a good opportunity to put his side in front just before the break after a deep cross from Barry Bannan picked him out inside the Sunderland box, but he panicked and dragged a tame shot wide. It epitomised the lack of confidence in the final third displayed by both teams.
The hosts came out re-energised after the break, and a flurry of fine crosses into the box put Villa under pressure, with Gardner heading narrowly wide from a deep delivery from Bardsley.
Villa had not scored an away goal in the second half of a Premier League game since January, but against the run of play they took the lead to stun their hosts in the 58th minute.
Benteke rose imperiously to win a header at the back post after a swift counter-attack from the visitors, and Agbonlahor was on hand to stab the loose ball home from close range to leave Mignolet with no chance.
Sunderland were furious as they had their vociferous appeals for handball rejected by referee Mike Jones as Benteke was inadvertently struck on both arms following a cross from Adam Johnson.
O’Neill swiftly reacted to falling behind as he introduced James McClean and Saha at the expense of the ineffectual Gardner and Sessegnon with the home supporters beginning to get restless.
Saha almost immediately squandered a glorious opportunity to level for the hosts as he ghosted in front of his marker, substitute defender Enda Stevens, but he somehow contrived to head over the bar from close range.
The final clear-cut chance of the game fell to the visitors, who produced another pacy counter-attack which culminated in Andreas Weimann driving a tame shot straight at Mignolet with just the goalkeeper to beat.
Sunderland have now won just one of their last seven home Premier League games against Villa, and find themselves languishing down in 16th place, while Lambert’s side claimed a hugely valuable victory - only their second in the league this season.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Ciaran Clark – Aston Villa: The defender was a rock at the back for the visitors, and produced an impeccable last-ditch challenge to prevent a near-certain goal in the first half to cap a very accomplished display.
ASTON VILLA: Guzan 7, Lowton 7, Bennett 6, Vlaar 8, Clark 8, Westwood 7, Bannan 7, Ireland 7, Weimann 7, Agbonlahor 7, Benteke 7. Subs: Holman 6, Stevens 6, Lichaj 6.
MATCHCAST: FULL COMMENTARY AND STATS