Match report: Stoke City 2-1 Villa
Villa's best efforts to rule the Britannia were cruelly thwarted by late goals from Kenwyne Jones and Robert Huth.
Things had been going so well for Kevin MacDonald's team as Stewart Downing capped a terrific first-half team display with a goal of the highest quality.
After playing with such craft and poise before the break, Villa's steely determination kept Stoke at bay for long spells of the second period until Jones cracked their resistance with a header 10 minutes from time.
And Huth turned the game on its head with virtually the last kick, tapping home a stoppage time winner from close range.
These two sides mustered up just one goal in two feisty but watertight contests last term - but there was little sign of such caginess here.
The opening exchanges of this latest instalment were similarly close until Villa were able to break free and play with the sort of "va va voom" that incoming manager Gerard Houllier will no doubt demand when his tenure gets underway.
But the quality of the football offered up by the claret and blues in the first 45 minutes makes the result even tougher to take, particularly after the way they peppered the Potters' goal.
The hosts, who were without manager Tony Pulis for the first-half due to a family bereavement, were adventurous on the counter-attack and posed early problems.
However, Villa kept them at bay, before launching into a blistering spell of enterprising, attacking football.
Brad Friedel was the busier of the two goalkeepers in a cagey opening - the American making himself big to deny Jones after the Trinidadian surged on to Marc Wilson's through pass, before beating away a vicious left-foot volley from Stoke striker.
But, when MacDonald's men clicked into gear, they meant business.
A Downing diving header may be considered somewhat of a collector's item, but the winger converted his 34th minute strike like a seasoned centre-forward.
Gabby Agbonlahor was the creator, collecting Nigel Reo-Coker's pass on the left flank, before clipping a delicious inswinging ball to the back post.
Downing met with his head and steered it into the bottom corner with precision.
Unfortunately Ashley Young wasn't so clinical when reacting to Agbonlahor's cross from the opposite flank minutes later, heading narrowly wide of the target.
Downing and Collins then made ex-Villa keeper Thomas Sorensen produce two fine reflex saves from tight angles as the visitors turned on the style.
Amazingly, not a single Rory Delap long throw had been delivered prior to Downing's deadlock-breaker. Suddenly three arrived in quick succession.
The Delapidator caused brief discomfort in the Villa penalty box - cries for handball against Collins were dismissed by referee Lee Probert and the away side's lead stayed deservedly intact.
There were emotional scenes at the restart when Pulis emerged for the second-half to a rousing reception.
With his arrival on the touchline came a burst of inspiration from his Stoke team.
Friedel produced two more saves - firstly tipping away a Jones header and later throwing himself in front of Etherington's shot from close range.
Villa briefly returned fire, with Sorensen forced to hold Marc Albrighton's teasing shot from a tight angle after an incisive ball from Ashley Young.
But, just as the travelling support were ready to hail another gritty Villa display, Stoke had other ideas.
Etherington's determination allowed him to reach the by-line and loft a cross to the back post, with Jones timing his arrival perfectly to head home.
The contest seemed to be heading for a draw, until Jermaine Pennant clipped a free-kick into the Villa box. It was only cleared as far as Etherington, whose low cross was turned home from close range by Huth.
STOKE: Sorensen; Huth, Shawcross, Faye, Collins; Delap, Whitehead, Wilson, Etherington; Walters, Jones. Subs: Begovic, Higginbotham, Whelan (for Delap, 86), Gudjohnsen, Fuller (for Walters 61), Pennant (for Wilson 65), Wilkinson.
VILLA: Friedel; L Young, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; Albrighton, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Downing; A Young, Agbonlahor. Subs:Guzan, Ireland, Heskey (for Agbonlahor, 86), Beye, Cuellar, Clark, Hogg.