SUNDERLAND, December 16- A James Milner-inspired Aston Villa followed up their weekend win at Manchester United with a 2-0 win at Sunderland that underlined the credibility of their challenge for a top four finish.Milner made Villa’s opener for Emile Heskey then found the net from fully 30 yards to enable Villa to leapfrog Arsenal into third place in the table ahead of the Gunners’ trip to Burnley on Wednesday.
Unsurprisingly, Villa boss Martin O’Neill kept faith with the line-up that had secured victory at Old Trafford while his opposite number Steve Bruce restored winger Kieran Richardson to the side at the expense of Fraizer Campbell.
Sunderland started brightly and Villa were fortunate that Andy Reid’s second-minute corner cleared the goalmouth without anyone getting a touch.
Teenage midfielder Jordan Henderson then almost opened the scoring for the home side, snapping a shot inches wide from Darren Bent’s lay-off.
Sunderland were winning the early 50-50 balls, not always legally. Skipper Lorik Cana and George McCartney both picked up yellow cards, with the latter conceding a free-kick for a trip on Emile Heskey that resulted in Stewart Downing hitting the crossbar from the resulting free-kick.
That was a sign of Villa asserting themselves and the visitors took the lead midway through the opening period. A fine ball from Milner released Heskey into the Sunderland box and the England centre-forward beat Martin Fulop with a confident finish.
Sunderland had not generated a single clear chance by that stage and it was not until ten minutes before the break that they did, Kenwyne Jones heading wide after being picked out by a McCartney’s fine cross.
Reid finally got an effort on target with a right-foot volley two minutes later but Brad Friedel blocked with his legs.
Sunderland should have equalised four minutes after the restart, when Bent flicked McCartney’s long ball into the path of Reid, who sliced his attempted finish wide.
The home side continued to pile on the pressure but Villa, as ever, looked dangerous on the break and only the woodwork denied Ashley Young a goal four minutes before O’Neill’s men doubled their lead.
Sunderland lost possession from a throw-in and the ball fell to the outstanding Milner 30 yards out. The winger, operating in central midfield, steadied himself and unleashed a shot that found the top right corner of the net to seal the points for Villa.
Any chance of a late rally by the home side was extinguished with 13 minutes left when Cana was ordered off after receiving a second yellow card for a late challenge on Milner.