With just five minutes on the clock there was a shot on target. No really there was. It even lead to a goal, although it wasn't an actual goal nor shot on target. Sorry to get your hopes up but as Stephane Sessegnon slipped through Steven Fletcher, who slotted neatly past Brad Guzan, the offside flag was raised.
It was Villa who went on to have a decent spell, forcing a string of corners which caused little to no problems for the defence as the opening ten minutes of the game brought about a decent atmosphere and uptempo pace.
This was brought to a temporary halt however as following a robust, but fair challenge from Phil Bardsley, former 'Boro defender Joe Bennett suffered a recurrence of a recent knee injury and was replaced by Eric Lichaj.
The first twenty minutes ended with Villa looking the more threatening. Plenty of corners while we tried to play on the counter-attack with varying degrees of success. One thing which was becoming a bit of a theme was the nuisance factor of Christian Benteke. The big Belgian seemed to be in a running battle with John O'Shea, just as we had predicted, and O'Shea seemed to be just coping with things.
After a few wasteful freekicks from us via Johnson and Larsson when well placed we actually kicked on a bit. A corner was won near the half hour after a superb flowing move involving Sessegnon, Fletcher and Johnson, which lead to Sessegnon seeing his effort superbly blocked by a Villa defender. Encouraging signs that all three can work together.
There was more joy between Johnson and Sessegnon too as things progressed. They combined superbly to see the former Manchester City midfielder tee up Lee Cattermole. The Captain curled an effort just inches over, denied what would have been his first goal in over four years.
The chances continued to flow. Highly encouraging stuff as a foul from Lichaj went unpunished allowing Johnson to make headway into the Villa area, but having moved on to the right hand side, his one-footedness became a glaringly obvious problem as in dithering to get the ball onto his favoured left, the chance fizzled away.
Seb Larsson had been fairly absent since the switch of wings, but was brought into play on a swift counter-attack by Fletcher. The Swede was obviously still getting his eye in the game as he shot so waywardly it went out for a throw in.
Villa still had their chances too. Benteke played a nice one-two with Stephen Ireland near the edge of the area and slipped into the box far too easily. Thankfully his miscontrol allowed Bardsley to clear, but it was a sign that we'd still have to do more if we wanted to emerge from this game with all three points as the half time whistle sounded.
Sunderland started the second half brightly. With fireworks night approaching, evidently Martin O'Neill fired a few rockets up some backsides.
The nice passing from the first half continued, and it created chances as we broke with speed and guile. Cattermole starting things and bringing everyone into play, allowing those ahead of him to do the business. Unfortunately by the time it was Sessegnon's turn to get in on the action, the Beninese attacker couldn't do anything with it and the chance was gone.
As per usual when things are looking up for Sunderland, the club kicks you in the bollocks, and that's exactly what happened on 56 minutes when the away side took the lead, having looked second best for the entire second half to this point.
It was the simplest of goals too, which just makes things all the more annoying. Matthew Lowton had the freedom of Sunderland to cross the ball, he did so and found Benteke out-jumping Bardsley, and Gabriel Agbonlahor nipped in ahead of Carlos Cuellar to tap in from six yards out.
It took us a while to get back into things as that goal seemed to really knock us off our stride entirely. There was however a very decent shout for a penalty on 65 minutes when Benteke handled in the area with nothing given.
Bardsley's cross was flicked by John O'Shea onto Benteke who was in close attendance, and the ball bounced off both hands and away. One side of the coin says he was very close and there was nothing he could do about it. The other says Santi Cazorla was punished for an almost identical incident a few hours earlier.
Martin O'Neill threw on Louis Saha and James McClean in relief of Craig Gardner (who'd once again looked absent in midfield) and Stephane Sessegnon as cards were played early.
Saha almost had an instant impact, and really should have had us on level terms. Meeting a Larsson freekick ahead of Brad Guzan, the Frenchman's flick went high over the bar rather than nestling in the back of the net.
Villa seemed happy to soak up the pressure, and nearly had us on the counter attack on several occasions. Cattermole lost possession cheaply in midfield allowing the away side to exploit the space left by our men bombing forward. This all lead to Weimann testing Mignolet, with the Belgian equal to it, but strange goings on were just around the corner for him...
A terrible back pass from Cuellar had Mignolet in all sorts of bother. A poor touch from Mig didn't help matters as the ball bounced around and into the air. Feeling pressure from Benteke, after a few keepy-ups he overhead kicked it low to Ireland, who's effort was deflected towards goal and off the post by Benteke. Benteke was deemed offside, but my word, it could have been so different. In my notes this moment was simply labelled "what the absolute f*ck!?"
Bardsley came off, Fraizer Campbell came on as the final moves were made in desperation by O'Neill. Campbell's nice ball into Johnson saw yet more dithering and a chance fizzle out, while the sub striker also wasted chances of his own as the curtain was drawn on very bad day for us.
There were so many reasons to feel positive here. For large spells we looked the better side, passing it about superbly, but ultimately Villa had what we didn't, and that's killer instinct. They had the ability to be just slightly more of a danger on the counter-attack. We lacked it.
We're not reaching for the panic button yet, but it's going to be some task for O'Neill to keep others away from it.