By Paul Brown
Villa Ladies went down 2-1 at Sunderland Ladies but they were desperately unlucky at the home of the League Champions.
Boss Joe Hunt was thrilled with the performance of his energetic and youthful side as they took on the best team in the National League.
Villa Ladies more than matched Sunderland Ladies and could easily have won the game on another day.
There was one change from the previous weekend's win at Charlton - skipper Dani Petrovic returned to the side after overcoming a knee problem.
Katie Wilkinson, therefore, dropped to the bench, with Eric Vaughan going to right-back and Maddie Cusack slotting in at central midfield.
Villa Ladies started the game very brightly, creating several clear-cut opportunities in the opening 20 minutes.
Kelly Clarke shot wide when well-placed, Carly Davies lobbed over the bar and Jade Richards headed wide from close-range.
Despite this dominance, it was Sunderland Ladies who took the lead against the run of play.
Goalkeeper Megan Walsh was adjudged to have fouled lively Beth Mead in the box, although the decision looked very harsh on the England stopper.
Kelly McDougall stepped up and converted the spot-kick into the top corner.
This did little to halt the progress of the girls in claret and blue.
They kept battering the Black Cats defence for the remainder of the half and were extremely unlucky to be down at the break.
The second half continued much like the first period, with Villa dominating possession.
McCue, Clarke and Stringer all had fine efforts which tested the home keeper.
With Villa ready to introduce Wilkinson in their hunt for an equaliser, Sunderland Ladies showed their champion class.
They produced a breathtaking move down the left which resulted in a pinpoint cross to Keira Ramshaw who volley home from close-range.
That gave Villa Ladies a mountain to climb with 25 minutes remaining but they literally laid siege to the Sunderland Ladies goal.
Further shots from Clarke, Wilkinson and Stringer went close before Wilkinson curled home a beautiful free-kick with 10 minutes to go.
For the remainder of the game Villa Ladies attacked at every opportunity.
Captain Petrovic - a centre-half by trade - acted as a point striker with Merrick, Fergusson, McCue and Wilkinson all around her.
However, the home side's defence held on and took all three points.
Boss Hunt was gutted with the result - but he was absolutely thrilled with the performance.
Hunt insists Villa Ladies should have won the game - never mind earned a draw.
He said: "Even though we lost the game I think we deserve a lot of credit for the performance.
"They did everything I asked of them, backing themselves individually all over the park.
"We took the game to Sunderland and pressed them high up the pitch.
"We had great variation in our play, knowing when to play long and then some clever combination work to release our wingers and forwards. We don't like losing games but I'll take massive positives out of the performance.
"We ran the champions close, we didn't deserve a point we deserved all three.
"Full credit to Sunderland though, they defended very well and a touch of class won the game for them."
VILLA LADIES: Walsh, Vaughan, Mannion, Moran, Petrovic, Richards, McCue, Stringer, Davies (Fergusson), Cusack (Wilkinson), Clarke (Merrick). Subs not used: Merritt, Crackle.