Aston Villa took a huge step towards Premier League survival as Christian Benteke's second-half hat-trick saw them crush Sunderland 6-1 at Villa Park.
The Belgian, by far Villa's best player this season, showed his full repertoire with a poacher's finish, a powerful header and a cool piece of deception to complete the club's first Premier League hat-trick since Gabriel Agbonlahor against Manchester City in August 2008.
Villa moved five points clear of 18th-placed Wigan and go level on points with a ragged Sunderland, who will be without Stephane Sessegnon for the rest of the season following his red card for a studs-up challenge on Yacouba Sylla.
And in a season when goal difference could be crucial, Agbonlahor's late finish moved Villa ahead of Newcastle as they improved from -27 to -22.
Benteke settled a game that looked in the balance at half-time. Ron Vlaar gave Villa the lead from 35 yards, but a minute later Danny Rose equalised with the culmination of a superb passing move.
Villa quickly regained the lead as Andreas Weimann capitalised on good work from Matt Lowton to finish from the edge of the box.
Sunderland welcomed back two former Villa man - Craig Gardner after suspension and Phil Bardsley after injury, while a third ex-Villa, Carlos Cuellar, also started.
The match started slowly - both sides have lacked attacking spark this season and that much was apparent from the early stages.
The first sign of better things to come arrived on 25 minutes when Agbonlahor played a one-two with Benteke - the return pass a beauty - and shot just wide of the left-hand post.
Villa captain Vlaar scored a memorable first goal Premier League goal, drilling a low, long-range shot past Simon Mignolet after Sunderland failed to clear their lines.
The goalkeeper might have reacted quicker and was undone as the ball skipped past him off the greasy surface on a rainy night in Birmingham.
Within seconds, Sunderland were level in thrilling fashion as Rose swept inside from the left, exchanged passes with Danny Graham and finished low into the right corner.
Back came Villa, who regained the lead when Lowton intercepted a diagonal crossfield ball and raced forward from right-back. He lofted a fine diagonal pass of his own into the path of Weimann, who shot low past Mignolet.
The second period belonged to Benteke, though. His first was a case of 'right place, right time' as Mignolet parried a deflected Agbonlahor shot into his path and he stooped to head in.
There was nothing fortunate about Benteke's second - Villa's fourth - as he leapt majestically to meet an Ashley Westwood corner and powered in a downward header at the far post.
Sessegnon's red card ended Sunderland's challenge as Lee Probert dismissed him, perhaps harshly, for his challenge on Sylla which, while careless, was hardly a leg-breaker.
Benteke showed no mercy when Sunderland surrendered possession in their own half - as he bore down on goal from the left side, Mignolet gambled on a shot to the far post, but Benteke deceived him by slotting into the opposite corner.
And Agbonlahor provided a final flourish when he latched on to David Vaughan's appalling backpass, dribbled past Mignolet and found the empty net.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Chrsitian Benteke (Aston Villa): Villa's first Premier League hat-trick for five years moved Benteke to 18 this season. Where would they be without him?
ASTON VILLA: Guzan 7, Lowton 8, Vlaar 8, Baker 7, Bennett 7, Westwood 7, Delph 7, Sylla 7, Weimann 7, Agbonlahor 8, Benteke 9... Subs: Bent N/A.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 6, Bardsley 5, O’Shea 6, Cuellar 5, Rose 7, N’Diaye 5, Larsson 5, Gardner 6, Sessegnon 5, Johnson 6, Graham 5... Subs: McClean 6, Vaughan N/A, Mandron N/A.
- Sports & Recreation
- Christian Benteke
- Gabriel Agbonlahor
- Simon Mignolet
- Stephane Sessegnon