PAOLO DI CANIO berated his side’s “unacceptable display” as Sunderland’s relegation fears resurfaced in the wake of their heaviest defeat of the season.

On a disastrous night at Villa Park, the Black Cats slumped to a 6-1 defeat that saw Aston Villa join both them and Newcastle United on the 37-point mark, five points clear of Wigan Athletic, who boast a game in hand.

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Christian Benteke’s second-half hat-trick capped a sensational Villa display, with Ron Vlaar, Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor also finding the target for Paul Lambert’s side, who are hitting their best form of the season at just the right time.

Sunderland, on the other hand, were wretched for large periods, with their misery intensifying when Stephane Sessegnon received a straight red card for a foul on Yacouba Sylla.

The Black Cats will appeal Sessegnon’s dismissal in an attempt to prevent him missing the final three games of the season, but Di Canio accepts his players will have to improve on last night’s miserable performance if they are to add to their points tally before the end of the campaign.

“That was completely unacceptable,” said the Sunderland boss. “It’s obvious that there were two different teams on the field.

One team, Aston Villa, had ferocity, desire, ambition and dedication. They played like it was the last chance of their lives.

“In many ways, they looked like us in the last two weeks. But today, we weren’t the same. That can happen in football, but it is not acceptable.

“You can lose with a big gap, 5-1 or 6-1, but the way it happened here is not acceptable. “Maybe I did not read my players properly, and my players obviously did not perform in the way they can.”

Last night’s capitulation was all the more surprising given that it followed backto- back victories over Newcastle and Everton that had suggested the dark days of the Martin O’Neill era were firmly in the past.

Instead, many of Sunderland’s old failings reappeared at Villa Park, with a lack of defensive organisation contributing to their downfall and a succession of unforced errors making a bad situation worse.

Di Canio had talked of needing one more win to guarantee safety in the build-up to last night’s game, and the Italian accepts his players might have been basking in a false sense of security prior to kick-off.

“After two wins in a row, maybe they thought their stomachs were a bit full,” he said. “When you eat a lot, you relax, you sleep. But you need more food to be alive, and we need another three points, minimum.

Points are our food. Anyone can have a bad night, but it cannot be allowed to happen in this manner.”

After celebrating in front of the visiting fans at St James’ Park, Di Canio made a point of taking his entire squad and backroom staff across the Villa Park pitch to commiserate with the travelling supporters at the final whistle.

“It’s beautiful to go there when you celebrate and win, but you have to make sure you still stand in front of everybody even if you lose, even when it is as heavy as this,” he said. “We apologised, and now we will start working again. We will try to work hard to get enough points to stay up.”

Sunderland’s prospects in their remaining games would be enhanced by the presence of Sessegnon, and the Wearsiders will formally appeal referee Lee Probert’s decision to dismiss the Benin international for an over-the-ball challenge that saw him plant his foot on top of Yacouba Sylla’s.

“There is nothing in it,” said Di Canio. “The challenge obviously finished on Sylla’s foot, but the leg is not straight and he does not hammer his foot to damage the opponent. He doesn’t cause any damage to his opponent, and for sure we are going to appeal.

“I understand that the referee can fall into a trap because the dynamics of the accident can put him into difficulty. His decision can be understandable at the moment, but it is not fair because he (Sessegnon) could miss the rest of the games.”