Milner and Agbonlahor celebrate the former's magnificent strike at Sunderland
By Sam Lyon
Aston Villa underlined their top four aspirations with a clinical victory over Sunderland that lifts them above Arsenal and into third in the league.
Emile Heskey opened the scoring with a low drive and James Milner sealed an impressive win with a superb 25-yarder.
Stewart Downing and Ashley Young also hit the woodwork, but Sunderland were not overawed in a competitive game.
Andy Reid twice went close for them but Lorik Cana's late red card for a second booking summed up a frustrating night.
The defeat continues a frustrating run of form for an inconsistent Sunderland outfit, whose wins over Liverpool and Arsenal represent their only victories from their last nine league games.
But for Villa, victory pushes them to within five points of the Premier League summit and provides further weight to the argument that they, more than any side, have the potential to break the monopoly of the big four.
O'Neil delighted with winning run
Martin O'Neill's side came into the match on the back of Saturday's potentially campaign-defining victory over Manchester United, but any fears that the trip to the Stadium of Light would be a case of "after the Lord Mayor's Show" proved wide of the mark.
Sunderland actually started the better of the sides, with the hosts stroking the ball about nicely early on, and Jordan Henderson beat the post by a matter of inches with a pile-driver from 20 yards out on 10 minutes.
But Villa soon found their stride and not long after Downing had rattled the bar with a curling free-kick from the edge of the area, they were ahead.
Sunderland's George McCartney caused problems for his side by giving the ball away midway in his own half, but there was plenty still to do.
Stilian Petrov drove forward, fed the ball to Milner, and his sublime clipped pass found Heskey in the box, the striker turning and slamming low into the net.
On the back of one win in seven matches, Sunderland might have been expected to falter in response, but with a home record better than anyone's outside of the top four, they are a side made of sterner stuff than that.
Reid, in particular, proved a handful for the Villa defence and twice the Irishman could have levelled things up for the Black Cats.
First he forced a smart save from keeper Brad Friedel with a stinging volley from Henderson's cross, and he should then have done better when Darren Bent's flick-on found him in space in the box, only for the midfielder to slice wide.
Had either chance found the net, the match outlook would have looked very different.
As it was, Villa always looked a threat in attack and they were denied by the woodwork for a second time just before the hour mark when Heskey set up Young to slam a drive against the outside of the post.
It proved only a brief reprieve for the hosts, though, and Milner, thriving following his recent switch to central midfield, wrapped the game up with a stunning strike.
The 23-year-old, who on current form looks a certainty to be in Fabio Capello's England World Cup squad next summer, collected the ball on the left, held off the challenge of Kieran Richardson and then launched an unstoppable drive into the top corner from fully 25 yards.
Bruce rues missed chances
To their credit, Sunderland continued to probe, and it took a goal-saving tackle from Richard Dunne to deny Kenwyne Jones six yards out just minutes after Milner's strike.
But as the game drew to a close, Villa's assuredness grew ever stronger, only aided by Cana's dismissal for a second booking - the first for a lunge on Agbonlahor, the second a similarly reckless foul on Milner.
The only measure of comfort Sunderland fans could draw on the final whistle was the return to action of key midfielder Lee Cattermole after a knee injury as a second-half substitute.
Villa, though, will look to build on this win when they host Stoke on Saturday as their fantastic start to the season goes from strength to strength.
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