Just back from the game at Durham City's Archibald Stadium. 467 of us braved the cold, 462 of them were Sunderland fans.
It was nice to see Berger and Cahill back in the team, I wasn't sure what to make of Djemba Djemba's return though. One of the coaching staff said 'he talks a good game but you never know what you're going to get from him'.
The game started slowly, Sunderland were the better side for the first 10 minutes or so. Villa seemed to be having trouble with the pitch, which looked in good shape considering the amount of games it has to take (all Durham's league and cup games, as well as Sunderland, Hartlepool and Darlington reserve games). There's been a lot of rain up here over the last few days, so the pitch was soggy and the players took some time to get their passes together. Eventually, Berger started to impose himself on the game but his lack of fitness was very apparent. Djemba was sitting in a midfield holding role, tackling when necessary and talking to the young players. He definitely has a very good football brain, he knew where his teammates where all the time and was excellent at keeping the ball in tricky situations.
The first real chance fell to Sunderland, Jon Stead through on goal after some slick passing on Sunderland's right, but Stuart Taylor did well to keep the effort out.
5 minutes later, Shane Paul and Peter Whittingham exchanged passes to leave Paul one on one with Sunderland keeper Ben Alnwick (who performed so admirably in our 3-1 win at Stadium of Light). Paul, Alnwick and a Sunderland defender all collided and the ball fell to Jamie Ward to tap into an open net. Unfortunately, Alnwick didn't get up from the collision and left the game with what looked like a badly broken leg.
Sunderland tried to come back in to the game and, despite plenty of posession and attempts on goal, Gary Cahill and Steven O'Halloran the centre backs never looked stretched, and Stuart Taylor had precious little to do except negotiate the tricky surface for his goal kicks.
Half Time Sunderland 0 - Villa 1
Tea: Poxy. Chips: Cold.
Sunderland fans: Cold but friendly.
Berger left the game at half time, replaced by Isiaiah Osbourne, who bears a striking resemblance to Ugo Ehiogu. Second half was much of the same, a lot of midfield scrapping, not very many chances. Peter Whittingham put a free kick just wide and blasted a right footed shot very high, very wide. Then Villa started turning the screw a bit and really testing the Sunderland full backs. The pressure told in the end, and with 15 minutes to go Villa scored when Osbourne placed a shot into the net after Jamie Ward's turn and shot was saved by the legs of Sunderland replacement keeper Carson.
Sunderland head's dropped immediately, and a minute later Uli De La Cruz powered down the right hand side and delivered an immaculate cross into the penalty spot for Jamie Ward to score with a very nice looking diving header.
Villa were rampant at this stage and looked like they would score with every attack. Ward could have had the hat trick his performance deserved but his effort was well saved by Carson and another a minute later went narrowly wide.
Shane Paul was a constant threat with his pace and skill on the ball and it was a shame that his participation ended on 85 minutes when a perfectly fair tackle in the corner resulted in him being stretchered off with a recurrence of the knee injury which has kept him out lately. Replaced by Eirik Lund with 5 minutes to go.
In injury time, Villa were still pressing and Sunderland's second string looked like rabbits caught in the headlights. Peter Whittingham, who had a very lively game, had his efforts rewarded when Jamie Ward twisted past 3 defenders and crossed for Whittingham to score with a very sweet left foot volley from 18 yards out.
All told, a very professional performance from the Villa reserves on a very cold night. A lot of effort put in and no shortage of running or commitment. Particular praise for Cahill and O'Halloran in the centre of defence who always looked to be in control against the Sunderland strike force of Stephen Elliott and Jon Stead. Say what you like about those strikers, one is an international and they are both established Premiership players but were made to look less than average by the Villa defenders. Also praise for Kevin McDonald and Eric Steele, who's encouragement, cajoling and sometimes criticism helped the Villa youngsters keep their concentration and shape.
Taylor: Very vocal and always in command of his area, apart from one cross in the second half that he totally missed. 7.
De La Cruz: Bags of committment and enthusiasm, never stopped running. Great cross for Ward's second goal. 7.
Green: Did what was needed, was pulled out of position by Rory Delap in the first half but apart from that, did little wrong. 7.
Cahill: Towering performance, always assured, never troubled. 8.
O'Halloran: Same as Cahill, made a telling contribution to the 3rd goal with an excellent pass to De La Cruz. 8.
Whittingham: Has put a lot of bulk onto his frame and looks a better player for it. Some nice touches and a very nice goal. 7.
Djemba - Djemba: Some good hard crunching tackles and did well to contain his frustration at some very unsporting fouls by his marker. Excellent vision and awareness at times. 9.
Kabeya: Sad to say it, but not impressive. Seemed to lack concentration and was let down by his first touch too often. The one player who seemed unwilling to track back. 5.
Berger: Lack of fitness was obvious, but his football brain was definitely working. Tried to compensate for fitness with vision and did well in the 45 mins he was on, but will be looking for more games at this level to sharpen up. 6.
Paul: Had the Sunderland defence terrified with his pace and trickery and was unlucky not to create a clear chance for himself to score. 7.
Ward: A captain's performance and was unlucky not to get a hat trick. More than just a striker though, linked well with his teammates and created Whittingham's goal too. 9.
Osbourne (for Berger, 45): Well taken goal and used his impressive frame to intimidate his marker and cause problems down our left side. 7.
Bridges (for Kabeya 76): Was involved and created space for De La Cruz to exploit. Should have been played through by Paul for a certain goal. 6.
Lund (for Paul, 85) Was hardly involved. 6.
Man of the Match: Djemba Djemba. Solid, unspectacular, very effective. Played in the holding position and spoiled Sunderland's attempts at a passing game and was a conduit for Villa's attempts at switching the play at pace. I was very impressed.
A very good victory where the 4-0 scoreline didn't flatter us, in fairness, could have been more. I think it was nice that Kevin McDonald still wasn't happy and thought the victory should have been more comprehensive. And fair play to him and Steele for making the youngsters clean the dug out themselves; a nice touch that was recognised by the Durham City officials.
By Gary Gleeson
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