THE only real surprise was that there was a goal at all.
Sunderland have averaged a miserable one shot on target per game in their last three league games – and even then, not a particularly good one.
Villa, meanwhile, have had their own problems in front of goal, having failed to win away from home in 13 league games before the weekend, managing just two goals in five league games on their travels this season.
By half-time on Saturday, with both sides playing true to struggling form, it was clear it would take something a bit special to separate the teams by the final whistle.
So it proved.
Step forward Gabby Agbonlahor to join the celebrated ranks of Ade Akinbiyi and Emile Heskey in the pantheon of strikers suffering an immense Premier League goal drought grateful to see the Black Cats come over the horizon.
Just before the hour, Sunderland’s one strong hand this season – a defence which is the second meanest in the division – suffered a rare blip.
Villa right-back Matt Lowton was able to get in a cross too easily, Phil Bardsley, at the far post, misjudged his attempted clearing header and Christian Benteke nodded back into the danger zone, where fellow forward Agbonlahor stretched around Carlos Cuellar to toe-poke a ball high into the net from six yards.
It was the 26-year-old’s first goal in 28 Premier League games; his first top-flight goal in 364 days and it was a particular kick in the teeth for the home side who had been enjoying their most productive spell of the game just before they conceded.
It didn’t have to prove fatal to Sunderland’s hopes, of course.
But their continuing inability to make or take chances ensured that, just like Heskey’s first goal for Liverpool in 20 games or Akinbiyi’s first for Leicester in 15, one goal was sufficient to prove a match-winner against out-of-form opponents.
Sunderland had started the game well enough after a positive team selection saw two changes from the side which drew at Stoke – Stephane Sessegnon returned to the starting line-up at the expense of James McClean, while Bardsley made his first league start of the season, allowing Craig Gardner to move into central midfield.
Gardner’s return to his preferred position saw Jack Colback switch to left-back and Danny Rose drop to the bench alongside the Irish left-winger.
Aston Villa made changes, too, but the one Sunderland fans noticed was hero turned zero Darren Bent’s absence from the squad after the former Black Cats striker suffered injury in Friday’s training session.
Sunderland needed to start well and Steven Fletcher – still the only Sunderland player to score in a league game for the club this season – had the ball in the back of the net just five minutes into the match after Adam Johnson’s ball over the top allowed Sessegnon to feed his strike partner.
The Scot’s dinked ball over Brad Guzan was beautifully taken, but the striker was a yard offside when Sessegnon made his pass and the effort was rightly disallowed.
That moment gave another 40,000-plus crowd at the Stadium of Light real heart, but Sunderland were never able to build on it and – just like the cup game against Middlesbrough last midweek – gradually the visitors got a foothold in the game and visibly grew in confidence.
Villa won a series of corners and it was from Barry Bannan’s delivery from the right in the 12th minute that Benteke won a header.
But the ball was always looping harmlessly over Simon Mignolet’s crossbar in what proved to be a largely incident-free opening quarter-hour.
In the 17th minute, Agbonlahor saw a shot charged over the bar, while, in the 23rd minute, Gardner tried his luck from 25 yards with an inaccurate shot that lacked power when Sessegnon, out to his right, would have been a better option.
Gardner has a deserved reputation for poaching goals from midfield, but that was his 11th successive Premier League shot this season that had failed to find the target. And it wasn’t to be his last of the game.
Sunderland’s best chances to threaten should have been from a string of set-pieces, but Johnson and Seb Larsson’s delivery was abysmal all afternoon.
Sunderland’s most dangerous move of the first half came from open play just before the half-hour when Johnson played a short pass from the right to Lee Cattermole 20 yards from goal and the skipper’s rising shot went just the wrong side of Guzan’s left-hand post.
From the next attack, it was Sessegnon’s turn – Larsson whipping in a cross from the right which the striker nodded across goal.
Guzan may not have been tested, but these attacks lifted a crowd that had gone quiet, only for the game to subside into stalemate again towards the break, with just Andy Weimann’s powerful 38th-minute shot from 19 yards – the praise-worthy Mignolet equal to it – to break the monotony.
Sunderland needed to be better in the second half and they certainly tried – Fletcher setting the tone with a 47th-minute shot from range which drifted wide of Guzan’s right-hand post.
Colback earned warm applause for the cross of the match, thumping a ball along the six-yard box from the left, but there was no team-mate to capitalise.
From Bardsley’s centre from the right in the 51st minute, Gardner’s header was blocked wide.
Another Bardsley cross a couple of minutes later saw Guzan flapping the ball away from under his crossbar and Larsson following up with a header over the goal frame..
This was more like it from Sunderland and the crowd were quick to respond when Johnson, who had tried their patience up to this point, won a corner from the right in the 55th minute.
But, minutes later, all of Sunderland’s good work was undone when Villa broke down the right and snatched the lead.
Martin O’Neill’s men looked shell-shocked in the minutes that followed, with only Cattermole – as he was to do all game – demonstrating required drive and desire at time when his team-mates too often proved uncertain in ideas and static in movement.
Sunderland might have got back into the game quickly enough had referee Mike Jones been more generous in the 65th minute when a Bardsley cross from the right was headed on at the near post by John O’Shea and struck the outstretched hands of Benteke.
But the official ruled it accidental and unavoidable and waved play on.
After another misdirected shot, it was no surprise to see Gardner withdrawn in favour of McClean but a bit more of an eye-raiser to see Sessegnon replaced by Louis Saha at the same time – Sessegnon had looked much more like his normal self in this game, in terms of his glue-like possession and well-weighted passing.
Sunderland had some good fortune after the switches – Bardsley, previously booked for a foul on Agbonlahor in the first half, could count himself a little lucky to stay on the field when he brought down the same player again in the 69th minute.
But, having kept all 11 men on the pitch, the Black Cats pushed all-out for an equaliser.
Saha went close when he beat Guzan to a Larsson cross and headed a yard over the bar in the 72nd minute and substitute Fraizer Campbell, on for Bardsley in the 81st, directed a near-post header wide from McClean in time added on – the striker having previously scuffed a decent opening.
These opportunities came in a concerted spell of pressure which O’Neill hailed afterwards.
But that only told half the story – pressure is nothing without precision.
And Sunderland’s only on-target effort did not come until the 84th minute when Cattermole’s shot from outside the area saw Guzan desperately scrambling to his right to block and gather at the second attempt under pressure from Fletcher.
For the skipper to be Sunderland’s biggest goal threat – 78 appearances, no goals so far – said it all.
And even in that positive spell for the home side, Villa threatened to take advantage and Mignolet once again had to be at his best to clear under pressure on one occasion before making a fine save to deny Weimann.
There were signs of improvement from Sunderland if you looked for them, but these were just green shoots, and green shoots against limited opposition at that.
Next up is the formidable Everton at Goodison Park and everyone knows how dismal the Black Cats’ record is against David Moyes’s side.
The last thing Sunderland need when they’re going through a sticky patch as bad as this is a game against the Toffeemen.