It is early to be talking about weeks that might define your season, but the next seven days could tell us much about Aston Villa's chances of making a serious mark in this campaign.
Completing an aggregate victory on Thursday over Litex Lovech would take Martin O'Neill's team into the group stage of the Uefa Cup, guaranteeing European football for the rest of the year, while next Sunday's visit to Chelsea will be the stiffest test yet of their Premier League ambitions. Saturday's victory was Villa's fourth in their six league games and lifted them to third in the table, behind Chelsea and Liverpool.
Villa were leading 2-0 away to Chelsea nine months ago before Zat Knight's first-half dismissal produced a Christmas cracker of a match which ended in a 4-4 draw. "I'm hoping there might be fewer goals this time, although I'm not going to complain if we go back to Stamford Bridge and score four again," said Curtis Davies, Villa's central defender. "Chelsea believe they can win any game, especially at home. It will be an acid test of how far we've come as a side."
O'Neill was heartened by the way his team bounced back from the disappointing midweek Carling Cup defeat at home to Queen's Park Rangers and from the shock of going a goal behind here, Djibril Cissé putting Sunderland in front in the 10th minute after racing on to Steed Malbranque's perfect through ball.
While Villa's football flowed only intermittently, they never looked likely to lose their grip on the game once two Ashley Young free-kicks had put them in the lead. The first was a beauty, curled into the corner past Craig Gordon, while the second was deflected into the path of Stilian Petrov, who crossed for John Carew to score the winner with a neat back-heel from six yards.
If Young provides the touch of class that can break down the best Premier League defences, Villa's midfield trio of Nigel Reo-Coker, Gareth Barry and Petrov provide the launch pad for their attacking play. Reo-Coker's crunching tackles denied Sunderland time on the ball and Barry is enjoying greater freedom to support his forwards, while O'Neill reserved particular praise for Petrov, who did not have the best of times last season. His defensive game is looking stronger and the manager believes there is still more to come.
Sunderland, who have also made a promising start to the season, were generally outplayed in midfield, though the introduction of Andy Reid for the last half-hour, combined with Daryl Murphy's extra support for Cissé, threatened for a while to bring some some reward.
Roy Keane, the Sunderland manager, felt his team had not tested the Villa goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, enough. "We're leaving here really disappointed," Keane said. "That's partly that we won here last year, but no one thought for one minute that today was going to be easy. It must be a good sign for us as a football club that we're coming to Villa and looking forward to it and feeling we can get something from the game."
Goals: Cissé (10) 0-1; A Young (18) 1-1; Carew (33) 2-1.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Davies, Laursen, Shorey (Milner, 70); Reo-Coker, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew (Cuellar, 90). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Harewood, Knight, Salifou, Gardner.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Gordon; Chimbonda, Ferdinand, Collins, McCartney; Whitehead; Malbranque, Miller (Reid, 59), Richardson (Stokes, 79), Diouf (Murphy, 59); Cissé. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Chopra, Healy, Henderson.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Petrov; Sunderland McCartney.
Man of the match: Reo-Coker.