Christian Benteke scored a hat-trick as Aston Villa thrashed Sunderland 6-1 on Monday to give themselves real hope of avoiding relegation from the English Premier League. Victory saw Villa pull five points clear of the relegation zone with three games left to play.
FA Cup finalists Wigan, who have a game in hand over Villa, now look the most likely club to join the already relegated Queens Park Rangers and Reading in the Championship next season.
Defeat halted Sunderland’s revival under Italian manager Paolo di Canio and this loss was compounded by the sending-off of Stephane Sessegnon.
It left the Black Cats as one of three clubs on 37 points and completed a miserable round of matches for the north-east after Sunderland’s arch-rivals Newcastle were hammered 6-0 at home to Liverpool on Saturday.
Ron Vlaar opened the scoring for Villa with a 30-yard screamer that had too much pace and power on it for Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
But barely 60 seconds later, in the 32nd minute, Sunderland equalised when left-back Danny Rose crowned a superb move, exchanging passes with Craig Gardner and Danny Graham, with a well-struck shot.
However, at a rainswept Villa Park, Paul Lambert’s youthful side responded to the setback in the 38th minute when the unmarked Andreas Weimann turned in Matthew Lowton’s cross.
Villa, at 2-1 up, had a lucky break when Brad Guzan saw Graham penalised for knocking the ball out of the goalkeeper’s hands, when replays suggested he had lost control before former Villa man Gardner turned the loose ball home.
But instead of 2-2, the visitors found themselves 3-1 down when Belgian striker Benteke, one of the stars of an otherwise miserable season for the Villa faithful, saw the forward pounce in the 55th minute when he headed in the rebound after Mignolet failed to hold a Gabriel Agbonlahor strike.
Benteke then demonstrated his aerial power, rising above Carlos Cuellar to head home at the far post before completing his hat-trick with a 22nd goal of a remarkable season.
In between those goals, Sessegnon saw red after flattening Yacouba Sylla before Agbonlahor completed the rout two minutes from time.