Sunderland 1 Aston Villa 3
Reports of Aston Villa's impending Premiership demise would appear premature.
All it took to turn David O'Leary back from hopeful card shuffler back into managerial genius was a date with the top flight's bottom club. That and the chance to field something more like the team the Villa boss had been hoping to put on the park this season before their catalogue of injuries.
Kevin Phillips and Milan Baros started for only the fourth time up front together. Both scored, and suddenly everything seems rosy again in at least one corner of the much pilloried world of West Midlands football . . . if only O'Leary's bout of flu could be cured as easily.
The only slight down side is that Villa cannot guarantee meeting opposition as poor as Sunderland every week. But, even as feeble as they were, Mick McCarthy's men still caused one or two problems before Phillips began Villa's second-half goal blitz. And O'Leary's men for once had the luck on their side.
Another day, the ball might have been considered to have crossed the line for a goalkick before Baros back-heeled in the build-up to Villa's first goal. And on another day, Christian Bassila's fierce strike at the other end less than two minutes later might have bounced down off the crossbar over the rather than just on it.
But no matter what quality of opponents, a win is a win. And, in terms of injecting confidence, this one ought to prove more effective in healing Villa's ailments than whatever cold remedy O'Leary is currently on.
He might still be suffering the after-effects of his annual flu jab but O'Leary had already gone into this fixture feeling generally heartened by his side's performance in their previous outing against Liverpool a fortnight ago.
He felt the need to make just two changes - and they both proved improvements.
Mark Delaney's latest injury allowed O'Leary to bring back fit-again Aaron Hughes at right-back.
And Freddie Bouma was also fit to resume at left-back, allowing Gareth Barry to slot back into a reshuffled midfield at the expense of Eirik
Bakke. It looked, on paper, as strong a team as Villa have had out all season.
Apart from long- term absentee Martin Laursen, it was O'Leary's first-choice line-up. But it still took the visitors nearly 20 minutes to wake up and realise that they had not turned up merely to pick up three points and that they might have to do a bit of graft first.
Goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen - one of Villa's three returning Sunderland old boys - twice had to make routine early saves to deny Jon Stead and Alan Stubbs. And, when Bouma was lucky not to be booked for a foul on Andy Welsh, Dean Whitehead whipped in a free-kick and Sorensen had to make an even more hurried save to keep out Stead's close-range header.
But Villa finally got going when former Wearside idol Phillips cut inside and whipped in one of his trademark low curling shots that young Sunderland keeper Ben Alnwick saw late before turning round his left-hand post for a corner.
Barry, who had already misdirected one early volley, then cleverly feinted inside when Baros headed back James Milner's cross, but the Villa midfielder's finish was poor. And Barry - reputedly a target for Newcastle United - would hardly have added anything to his potential value when he also shot tamely wide.
Alnwick, who survived one dodgy moment when he almost took a Milner chip behind the line, then did well with a close-range block when Phillips threaded in Baros. But it was Sunderland who ended the half the stronger.
The speed of Stead's excellent quick turn and shot caught Sorensen so much by surprise that the Villa keeper could only parry. And Anthony Le Tallec almost sneaked in to good effect at the far post.
Le Tallec was again close at the start of the second half, blasting over on the turn from 12 yards.
But the home side were made to regret their wastefulness in front of goal when, just past the hour mark, their old favourite showed them how it should be done.
Baros tried to take on home left-back Justin Hoyte. But, just when it looked a lost cause and the ball was about to run out of play, the Villa player executed a clever back-heel.
Hughes, suddenly given yards of space behind him, swept over a pinpoint cross, and Phillips' head did the rest, steering into the far corner with a nonchalance all too painfully familiar to the Stadium of Light faithful.
Sunderland were so close to finding an instant response when Bassila rattled the underside of the bar.
But, coming on top of the goal, that near-miss had the instant effect of switching off the lights as far as Sunderland were concerned.
Phillips lasted barely another ten minutes before coming off feeling his calf. But it merely meant missing out on a late goal spree against a tiring, mentallysapped defence.
Baros shot straight at Alnwick when others were better placed. But the hungry Czech striker was not too pleased when substitute Luke Moore
did just the same after getting a clear run on goal.
Moore overran it slightly, allowing the keeper to block. But the Baros body language rather suggested that a pass would have been nice.
Moore then nearly got in again when he went down in the box under a challenge from home substitute Martin Woods. But, after surviving one more close shave when Hughes made a great block from Daryl Murphy, after Bouma had got caught by a quick break down the right, Villa settled it inside a devastating 60 seconds.
Milner took on Woods on the outer with a rapid change of gear, and crossed low for an unmarked Barry to apply
the finishing touch.
Moore then turned supplier, sending Baros away with another neat back-heel (were Villa's players all crowded round their TVs watching Wolves striker Vio Ganea show how it should be done on Friday night?) and the former Liverpool man did the rest.
There was one late blot at the end when referee Chris Foy was conned by Stead's pathetic flop to the floor in the presence of an aghast Liam Ridgewell and awarded the home side a penalty. An appalling decision! But even the disappointment of being denied a clean sheet when Whitehead converted from the spot could not dampen the buoyant mood of another successful raid on the North-east.
It was the visitors' best win since their 3-0 win on that fateful day of feuding home players just up the road at St James' Park last April. How Villa must wish they could play a few more games north of Scotch Corner!