Aston Villa 6 Sunderland 1
Christian Benteke scored a second-half hat-trick as Aston Villa roared to their biggest win since 2008 and zoomed five points clear of the Barclays Premier League relegation zone.
As they celebrated their success over a Sunderland outfit whose shuddering halt to their mini-revival included a red card for Stephane Sessegnon, the home fans wasted no time in taunting Paolo di Canio, who, when he came here with Swindon earlier this season, indicated Villa were on their way down.
Instead, Di Canio’s Sunderland outfit, like Villa and Newcastle, are on 37 points.
It is not a secure position by any means. But the team most obviously affected by this amazing result are FA Cup finalists Wigan, who have now been cut adrift, and have only four matches left to do something about it.
PFA Young Player of the Year nominee Benteke might have added the second-half gloss but the touchpaper to a thrilling evening had been lit by a pair of memorable strikes from two players who would have had the longest odds to score first.
If you are going to wait until the dregs of April to score your first goal of the season, it is best to make it worth the wait.
In that regard, both Ron Vlaar and Danny Rose fulfilled their obligations.
Both were different. Both were high class, in keeping with a thoroughly absorbing contest which, if lacking in finesse, was rip-roaring entertainment nonetheless.
Vlaar’s effort was brutal.
After a couple of brave blocks inside the Sunderland penalty area, the ball shot back towards the halfway line, where Vlaar collected on the edge of the centre circle, the invitation to advance clear.
The big Dutchman surged forward but was still fully 30 yards out when he let fly.
In theory, the flick off Carlos Cuellar should have made it easier to stop, as it took the shot away from the corner and further towards the middle of Simon Mignolet’s goal.
The problem was Vlaar had got so much power into his effort Mignolet was a bystander anyway, the Villa team racing away to celebrate as one as it ripped into the net.
For a crowd who could not be faulted for their backing, but whose worries were never far from the surface, it was a moment of ecstasy.
Typically, it was followed almost immediately by the nausea of fear.
As Rose set off from his left back berth, there didn’t seem much for Villa to worry about.
But after first exchanging passes with Craig Gardner, then Danny Graham, Rose powered on into the box, delivering a superb finish that brought the visitors level.
Di Canio, soaked by the constant rain, turned to the Villa fans he never got the better of as a player, and merely opened his arms in supreme satisfaction.
It summed up Villa’s season.
Nineteen games they have gone now since their last Premier League clean sheet, which doesn’t leave Paul Lambert having to look far for the reasons why his side have been in such a precarious position for so long.
Yet for all their faults, Lambert’s youngsters have so much character.
Rather than nervously hang about, Matthew Lowton picked his moment to make an astute interception before firing forward at top speed.
Sunderland were caught with too many men forward, Lowton delivered a fine crossfield pass and an unmarked Andreas Weimann did the rest.
Guzan might have had a bit of luck when Graham was penalised for knocking a ball out of his hands when TV replays suggested he had lost control of anyway before former Villa man Craig Gardner turned it home – but it was hard to begrudge them that slice of fortune, so industrious had they been.
And 10 minutes into the second period, Villa had a third as Mignolet was deceived by Agbonlahor’s piledriver and Benteke, onside, was all alone to nod the rebound into an empty net.
The Belgian has been the undoubted bright spot of a grim season for the Midlands giants.
And he had only just got started on his evening’s work as he rose above Cuellar to steer home a far post header before driving his third past a shellshocked Mignolet, his 22nd goal of an incredible campaign that is likely to make him the subject of intense transfer interest in the summer, whether Villa survive or not.
In between, Sessegnon was dismissed for a tackle that flattened Yacouba Sylla and left Di Canio raging.
The Italian’s frustrations should have been reserved for his own side’s abject surrender, their misery complete in the final minute as Gabriel Agbonlahor raced round Mignolet to end the rout.