PAOLO Di Canio has repeated his assertion that a win at Villa Park tonight will effectively guarantee Sunderland a place in next season's Premier League.

Wigan's failure to beat Tottenham at the weekend means the Black Cats head to the Midlands with a five-point gap to the relegation places.

Win tonight, and they will be eight points clear, but the gap would effectively be nine given that their goal difference is already a mammoth 16 goals better than Wigan's.

Roberto Martinez's side have a game in hand, and so could theoretically claim 12 more points before the end of the season, but if Sunderland were to reach the 40-point mark this evening, it would be extremely hard to imagine them slipping out of the top-flight.

“If we beat Villa, we give ourselves a great chance to stay up with two home games to come,” said Di Canio. “If we win, it does not mean we can relax with three games to go. But it does mean that we don't really have to worry about anyone else. There will be five or six clubs behind us and that would be a big factor.”

If Sunderland were to triumph tonight, they would claim a third straight victory for the first time this season.

Their form has been transformed under Di Canio, who has overseen a narrow defeat to Chelsea, a thumping win over Newcastle and an equally important success against Everton.

Few would have predicted such a rapid transformation, but while the Italian has previously admitted he would have taken six points from his first three games, he insists he has not been surprised by the quality of his players' performances since he replaced Martin O'Neill.

“No, I have not been more impressed than I thought I would be,” he said. “And that is a compliment because I always knew they are very good.

“Adam (Johnson) for example, we have seen much more of how he can play in the last two games, even better perhaps. If I say that he can still do even better, it is not a big criticism, it's just that he has the qualities to still play even better.

“You can talk about a player and say that you have been surprised by how well he played, maybe because you thought they were worse. But that has not been the case here because they are good players. But we can still improve game by game.”

The only change to the side that beat Everton is likely to come at right-back, although Di Canio must decide who to play in the role.

Jack Colback impressed in last weekend's 1-0 win over Everton, but Phil Bardsley, who acquitted himself excellently in the 3-0 win at Newcastle, is available again after injury while Craig Gardner also returns to the squad after serving a two-match ban.