All season long, Christian Benteke has been Aston Villa's saviour. So it proved on Monday. Needing all three points in their battle to avoid relegation, Benteke and company produced a phenomenal display to not just beat Sunderland but obliterate them 6-1. For the visitors, the defeat was even worse than the scoreline suggests -- they also lost Stephane Sessegnon to a straight red card in the second half and will have to play the rest of the season without him.
Everyone was expecting a belter of a game at Villa Park, but the match actually took a while to get going. The hosts in particular were sloppy, with Yacouba Sylla's poor passing causing them to break down whenever they tried to push through midfield. A Villa mistake nearly saw Sunderland go ahead in the first ten minutes -- Brad Guzan misjudged Adam Johnson's cross and allowed Craig Gardner to get around him, but the attempted centre was well cleared by Nathan Baker.
That was the only event of any real note in the opening 25 minutes, but a close call for Simon Mignolet ended the holding pattern and marked the start of an incredible spell. The previously-ineffective Benteke opened up the Black Cat's defence with a charge through the centre before playing in Gabby Agbonlahor with a clever flick. The mis-hit finish beat the keeper, but, to the disgust of Paul Lambert, trickled just wide of the far post.
Given the vast expanse of nothingness that had previously defined the game, it wasn't difficult to imagine that that chance would be the defining moment in a 0-0 score draw. Happily, it would be nothing of the sort. Five minutes after Agbonlahor's anguish, the rather implausible figure of Ron Vlaar put the hosts in front. A corner kick led to a pair of blocked shots, and the ball eventually popped out to the centre back, who trundled forward and unleashed a speculative 35-yard shot. Mignolet didn't see it until late, and by then he was powerless to stop the effort finding the bottom corner.
Vlaar didn't have much time to celebrate his first-ever Aston Villa goal. Sunderland struck back immediately, ripping apart the home defence with a series of intricate passes between Danny Rose, Danny Graham and Gardner. Eventually Graham managed to find Rose free in the box, and with Vlaar left on the ground in his wake the Black Cats right back fired across Guzan to make it 1-1.
This young Villa team might have been expected to fall apart after being pegged back so soon after they took the lead. Instead, they redoubled their efforts to find a goal. Carlos Cuellar picked up the game's first booking when he went through the back of Benteke, but as it turned out the Belgian striker wasn't the only man Sunderland should have been focusing on.
Leaving Andreas Weimann alone in acres of space on the left was a fatal mistake. The superb Matthew Lowton picked off a pass and went on a jolly run forward, spotting the Austrian behind Alfred Ndiaye and finding him with a perfect diagonal. Weimann's first touch was equal to the delivery, setting himself up to flip the ball over Mignolet with a sidefooted finish. 38 minutes in, Villa lead had been restored.
The visitors were second best for the rest of the first half, but they did get the ball in the net in stoppage time. Guzan had come out to collect a cross, and the ball had popped free to Gardner thanks to a mid-air collision between the goalkeeper and Graham. Gardner did his part in scrambling home, but Lee Probert waved the effort off for the foul on Guzan.
Probert had more work to do after the break, and the referee drew the ire of the home faithful by allowing Johnson to get away with a lunge from behind on Joe Bennett. But it was Sunderland who were most aggrieved by the officiating, which seemed to them to have played a huge rule in Villa's third goal.
It didn't. Agbonlahor had done his best to redeem an incoherent attack by weaving through a pair of defenders and shooting from 20 yards, but the threat looked minimal until a slight deflection off Phil Bardsley wrong-footed Mignolet, who could only palm the strike back into play. Straight back into the path of Benteke, as it turned out. While the whole Sunderland back line screamed for offside, the very-onside striker stooped and headed home to double Villa's lead.
Things would get worse for the visitors. Although they'd come within a few inches of pegging their hosts back once more when a Johnson cross just evaded Ndaiye, they still couldn't cope with Villa's attacking play and were duly punished just before the hour mark. A corner came in from the left, Benteke beat Cuellar to the header, and with nobody at the back post Mignolet was helpless.
Villa Park basked in the surprising 4-1 lead, but the players had no intention of sitting back and absorbing Sunderland's attacks for the rest of the match. Instead, they pressed for more. If not for interventions by Mignolet and Cuellar, Weimann would have added another with a double effort, but that merely prolonged the inevitable.
The visitors were hit with a huge blow in the 70th minute when Sessegnon stepped on Sylla's toes as the midfielder tried to turn and was issued a straight red card by Probert. It was a very strange decision, and one that proved terminal for Paolo di Canio's side. Minutes later, Benteke completed his hattrick thanks to a Mignolet error. The goalkeeper had come off his line expecting a cross as the big man bore down on goal, and Benteke replied by squeezing a shot just inside the near post.
Villa could easily have scored more than five. Cuellar, who was having a nightmare of the match, should probably have been penalised for handball when he once again found himself overmatched against Benteke on a corner, and Mignolet was forced into several more saves as the match drew to a close. Eventually Lambert took mercy on Cuellar, replacing his star striker with Sunderland old boy Darren Bent on 79 minutes, but the home support wanted six, and six they got.
The goal was preceded by more awful play from the visitors, with substitute David Vaughan playing an awful pass through his back line. In a flash, Agbonlahor was on the ball, and the speed merchant blitzed his way around Mignolet and slotted into an empty net to put the icing on Paul Lambert's cake.
For Sunderland, this is a wakeup call after impressive wins against Newcastle and Everton and a good performance at Chelsea. For Villa, this could well prove the defining match of their season. For a day, at least, they can forget about the relegation battle worries and enjoy a big, big win.