Final Score: Aston Villa 6 Sunderland 1

SO much for achieving safety with three games to go then.

It wasn't quite a collapse of Newcastle United proportions, but it was exceptionally close, and Sunderland's heaviest defeat of the season means they can no longer take their Premier League status for granted despite their previous improvement under Paolo Di Canio.

The five-point gap to Wigan will become two if the Latics win their game in hand, and while back-to-back home games against Stoke and Southampton offer Sunderland an opportunity to avert any final-day dramas, they will have to improve on last night's slipshod display if they are to avoid an anxious denouement.

Christian Benteke's second-half hat-trick exposed complete and utter chaos at the heart of the Black Cats defence, and rendered completely irrelevant the first-half strike from Danny Rose that sandwiched successful efforts from Ron Vlaar and Andreas Weimann. Villa's sixth goal, scored by Gabriel Agbonlahor, merely rubbed salt into the wounds.

Sunderland were comprehensively ripped apart, and their woes only intensified when Stephane Sessegnon received a straight red card for a foul on Yacouba Sylla. The African, who has been the Black Cats' best player under Di Canio, will miss the rest of the season.

How they will cope without him remains to be seen, although his absence will be an irrelevance unless his team-mates cut out the unforced errors that peppered their latest display.

The energy and intensity of their performance might have matched that of their three previous outings under Di Canio, but they displayed a sloppiness and lack of organisation that had not previously been seen under the Italian. As a result, it is safe to assume days off will be at a premium this week.

Di Canio shuffled his midfield, recalling Craig Gardner after a two-game ban and preferring Seb Larsson to James McClean, and the balance that had been evident in recent games disappeared as a result.

Gardner came close to breaking the deadlock with a seventh-minute shot that was hacked clear by Nathan Baker, but the rest of his display was rusty. Larsson simply never looked comfortable on the left-hand side.

It took an understandably nervous Villa side the best part of 20 minutes to achieve any cohesion, but their cause was aided by the regularity with which Sunderland conceded possession and once they gained the upper hand, they never looked like relinquishing it.

The hosts' need for three points was even more pressing than Sunderland's, and after Agbonlahor had exploited some defensive hesitancy to nudge a low shot narrowly wide of the post, Vlaar fired Villa into the lead.

The defender's strike might not have been the result of a major aberration from the visitors, but it came at a time when Sunderland were repeatedly being forced onto the back foot and saw Vlaar drill a ferocious 30-yard drive into the bottom left-hand corner after his determination enabled him to edge ahead of Danny Graham to reach a loose ball.

In fairness, Graham was making a decent job of leading the line as a lone striker at the other end, and the January signing was involved in the slick passing move that resulted in Sunderland equalising little more than a minute after they had fallen behind.

Having already exchanged passes with Gardner, Rose executed another one-two with Graham before continuing his run into the box. Graham's return pass was weighted perfectly, and Rose did not have to break stride to sweep home his first Sunderland goal.

Had the Black Cats got to half-time on level terms, the Villa Park crowd would have become increasingly edgy in the second period.

As it was though, Villa reclaimed their lead seven minutes before the interval, and this time the goal owed much to the sloppiness of Sunderland's defending.

Gardner needlessly conceded possession to Matthew Lowton with an unnecessarily risky long ball, and with Bardsley hopelessly out of position as a result, Lowton was able to send Weimann into the left-hand side of the box. The German, who has been one of Villa's better performers all season, calmly slotted a low shot past Simon Mignolet.

Mignolet can count himself unlucky not to have been in the PFA Team of the Year that was announced on Sunday night, but after a string of impressive displays this season, the Sunderland goalkeeper finally proved fallible as a rare error contributed to Villa's third goal ten minutes after the interval.

Agbonlahor did superbly to skip past two defenders on the edge of the area, but while his shot boasted plenty of swerve, Mignolet would still have backed himself to deal with it.

Instead, he was only able to palm the ball in the direction of Benteke as he was forced to change direction, and his fellow Belgian nodded home the rebound from the edge of the six-yard box.

Worse was to come for Mignolet and the rest of the Sunderland team five minutes later, as a bad night attained even more calamitous status.

A panicked Bardsley conceded an unnecessary corner, Westwood swung the ball over from the left, and Benteke out-jumped both Carlos Cuellar and John O'Shea to head home his second goal of the evening.

Sessegnon's red card followed shortly after, and while the forward can count himself somewhat unlucky to have been dismissed, he went over the top of the ball as he planted his own foot on the top of Sylla's.

Benteke's hat-trick goal ensured yet more misery, with Villa's top scorer living up to his lofty reputation as he profited from yet another defensive error, this time from Cuellar, to drill home.

And Sunderland's misery was complete two minutes from time when a wretched back-pass from substitute David Vaughan enabled Agbonlahor to round Mignolet to score.

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