Christian Benteke’s second-half hat-trick lifted Aston Villa’s hopes of Premier League survival and brought Sunderland’s revival under new manager Paolo Di Canio to an abrupt halt as the Black Cats were thrashed at Villa Park.
Di Canio described this vital meeting of the strugglers as Sunderland’s “Champions League Final” – but it turned into a nightmare as they were dragged right back into the relegation fight along with north-east neighbours Newcastle.
The home victory, and emphatic winning margin, also made it a bad night for Wigan as they now lie five points adrift of Villa, albeit with a game in hand.
Villa’s goals, coupled with Newcastle’s 6-0 home defeat by Liverpool, also mean the Midlanders leapfrog Alan Pardew’s side on goal difference.
And to make matters worse for Sunderland, the influential Stephane Sessegnon was given a straight red card in the second half for a challenge on Yacouba Sylla, prematurely ending his season at this vital time.
Ron Vlaar’s thumping shot gave Villa the lead on the half-hour only for Danny Rose to equalise almost instantly for Sunderland.
Andreas Weimann restored Villa’s advantage before half-time to set the stage for the powerful Benteke to demonstrate once more the quality that has made him such an outstanding purchase by manager Paul Lambert following his £10m summer arrival from Belgian side Genk.
The 22-year-old striker tormented the Sunderland defence with a 17-minute hat-trick and Gabriel Agbonlahor added further polish to Villa’s goal difference with the sixth two minutes from time.
The joy around Villa Park at the final whistle in recognition of this crucial win was in sharp contrast to the desolation of Di Canio and his players.
After the tedious surrendering of Premier League status offered up by Reading and Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, Villa and Sunderland approached this game with refreshing attacking intent.
A rainstorm was slanting across Villa Park as a frenetic first half unfolded, with Villa creating the first clear opening as Agbonlahor rolled his effort inches wide after a slick exchange with Benteke.
When the first goal arrived after 31 minutes, it came from an unlikely source. Sunderland struggled to clear under sustained Villa pressure and when the ball came to Vlaar 25 yards out, the powerful defender sent a low drive beyond the grasp of keeper Simon Mignolet with the help of a slight deflection off Carlos Cuellar.
Villa barely had time to celebrate before the visitors were level. Rose, as he had done previously, moved forward at speed and took Danny Graham’s pass perfectly in his stride before sending a composed finish past Brad Guzan.
The positive attitude of both sides was to be admired, if not their defending, and Villa were back in front seven minutes before the interval.
Sunderland were caught short at the back as Villa struck on the counter-attack, Matthew Lowton’s perfect pass inviting a superb first-time touch and finish from Weimann.
The second half belonged to Benteke as he took Sunderland’s defence apart and may just have opened up the route to safety for Villa.
He scored his first 10 minutes after the restart, stooping to head home after Mignolet had failed to deal convincingly with Agbonlahor’s shot. He then demonstrated his power in the air with a towering far post header from Ashley Westwood’s corner.
The early good impression the Black Cats have made under Di Canio’s guidance had been replaced by a ragged, disjointed display. And it got even worse with 20 minutes left when Sessegnon was shown a red card for leaving his foot in on Sylla.
It was turning into a dreadful night for Di Canio and and Benteke was the tormentor-in-chief. He scored his third with 18 minutes left, collecting another deflection off Cuellar to fire in from the angle.
Benteke’s name rang around Villa Park and he was given a deserved standing ovation – and a flamboyant embrace from Lambert – when he was replaced by former Sunderland striker Darren Bent late on.
With Sunderland in complete disarray, Agbonlahor got the goal his industry and endeavour deserved as he raced clear to round Mignolet and complete the almost perfect night for Aston Villa.