SUNDERLAND, England – Gabriel Agbonlahor lifted the gloom at Aston Villa and piled the pressure on Sunderland with a second-half winner in a 1-0 success at the Stadium of Light.
The forward's well-taken volley just before the hour mark was enough to settle a forgettable skirmish between two of the Premier League's lowest-scoring sides and give Paul Lambert just a second league win since his summer appointment.
Victory took Villa level on points with their hosts, whose supporters have had just three home goals to cheer since August.
Two of those came from Steven Fletcher and the Scotland striker was denied a sixth of the season by a correct - if marginal - offside call as he clipped Stephane Sessegnon's pass over Brad Guzan.
Adam Johnson was the home side's likeliest source of opportunities, the winger teeing up Sessegnon for a blocked shot and Lee Cattermole for a curler feathered a foot past the angle of post and crossbar.
But clear chances were hard to come by at either end before the break, Simon Mignolet's only involvement a routine stop from Andreas Weimann's 20-yarder.
That changed after half-time, Guzan's misjudgement going unpunished as Seb Larsson failed to control a header from Phil Bardsley's cross.
And the goal came in similar circumstances at the other end, Christian Benteke heading down Matt Lowton's floated centre for Agbonlahor to finish ahead of Carlos Cuellar.
Martin O'Neill sent on Louis Saha, whose flicked header cleared the bar, and home penalty appeals were given short shrift after John O'Shea's effort struck Benteke's arm.
Villa might have added a second on the break but for Weimann's weak finish, and Sunderland 's last chance to grab a draw went wide of the post with Fraizer Campbell's injury-time header.
The win was no more than Villa, who headed north without former Sunderland striker Darren Bent, deserved after turning in a display which belied their lowly position with striker Benteke bullying the home defense and Barry Bannan enjoying plenty of space in midfield.
But where the visitors were dynamic, their hosts once again labored with dangerman Fletcher effectively shackled as Johnson, Larsson and Stephane failed to provide meaningful service for long periods.
The response from the locals among a crowd of 41,515 on the final whistle was predictable with O'Neill's men having now won just one of their last 17 league games.
And Sunderland 's midweek Capital One Cup exit at the hands of Championship Middlesbrough provided further ammunition for those unhappy with a toothless run of form in the league.