It felt like the turning point in a season of woe for Aston Villa, and goodness knows there has been some hard times along the way, although on nights such as this there is much that can be forgotten.
Christian Benteke led the way with a hat-trick that confirmed him as one of the great emergent talents in the Premier League, a bustling clinical three-goal burst in 17 minutes of the second half. He dominated the Sunderland defence with his strength, he outjumped them at corners but the beauty of this Belgium striker is that he is so nimble on his feet and smart too.
Not many managers make an alternative suggestion for man of the match when their centre-forward delivers a hat-trick but there were murmurs of assent in the Villa Park press room after the game when Paul Lambert offered up the suggestion that Matt Lowton deserved it. There were others too, including Gabriel Agbonlahor who ran in the sixth goal to make him the club’s all-time leading goalscorer in the Premier League years.
For Lambert, there is a long way to go until the new Villa masterplan built on frugality and youth comes to fruition but for him it must have been a beautiful night. The Holte End insisted on a wave from their manager. He bounced along the touchline as the goals went in as, to his left, the energy and fight just drained from Paolo Di Canio.
Oh dear, Di Canio. At the end of the game he walked towards his own supporters with both palms raised in apology and would later describe the performance as “unacceptable”. The Sunderland players will be in training this morning, have no fear of that, and the new manager-uplift of those wins over Newcastle and Everton is well and truly lost.
Worst for Di Canio was the red card for Stéphane Sessègnon with 20 minutes left which means that he will be suspended for the last three games of the season. Di Canio said that the club would be appealing it and you could hardly blame them. With Steven Fletcher injured and Danny Graham very quiet, goals could be Di Canio’s problem.
The club that ended the night the worst off were Wigan Athletic who are now five points from safety in 18th position with Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland all on 37 points. The swing in goal difference that Villa’s six goals earned them last night was enough for them to go above Newcastle who drop to 17th place. Wigan have an extra game. Villa, going into Saturday’s game at Norwich have the momentum.
For Di Canio, animated for as long as his team were in the game, this was a dreadful experience. He promised that his side would work “with blood in their eyes” to rectify last night’s shortcomings, although he was at a loss as to why the performance should fall off so sharply. A long analogy about stomachs being “too full” left his audience none the wiser.
There were many concerns for Sunderland, including, among other deficiencies, the form of ex-Villa man Carlos Cuellar in defence. Their biggest threat in the first half was Adam Johnson on the right wing but he faded rapidly. Graham is just not being given the kind of opportunities he thrived on at Swansea although he did play an integral role in the Sunderland goal, scored by Danny Rose.
The first, from Villa, was Ron Vlaar’s first goal for the club — a classic centre-half’s forage forward that so often end in disappointment and a brisk trot back to the halfway line. This time it was different. Villa had kept the ball around the Sunderland area long enough for Benteke to tee up a shot for Ashley Westwood. That was blocked by Sebastian Larsson.
It was then Vlaar came forward, controlling the loose ball with his left foot near to the centre circle of the Sunderland half and then, within a couple of paces, driving a low shot with his right past Simon Mignolet. There was a moment of near disbelief in the stadium as the reality sunk in and then Lambert was along the touchline and punching the air.
In keeping with the mood of Villa’s season up to that point, the good feeling lasted roughly a minute. They were undone by a goal of equal quality from the impressive Rose, his first for Sunderland in his loan spell from Tottenham.
Rose worked his way in from the left, exchanging passes first with Craig Gardner, and then with Graham who cut the ball back from the left nicely onto the left foot of Rose. His finish was beyond Brad Guzan and this time it was Di Canio’s turn to pose, arm outstretched, palms raised upwards.
The best of the lot, however, was Villa’s second goal. The former Villa man Gardner, booed for every touch for his move to Birmingham City, hit a crossfield pass towards Larsson that was neatly intercepted by Lowton on his chest. He surged forward and glanced up once to gauge that there was a pass on to Andi Weimann on the left. But it had to be good. Lowton’s pass was perfect, Weimann’s first touch right on the money and his finish excellent.
The goals came in the space of six minutes and, despite having conceded, Villa retaking the lead did their confidence the power of good. They had not crumbled, instead they had fought their way back into the lead and the effect was discernible even after half-time.
They scored an excellent third goal 10 minutes after half-time, which began when Westwood, a hard worker in midfield, intercepted the ball. When it was finally worked to Agbonlahor on the edge of the area he slipped past two tackles on the edge of the box, hit a deflected shot that Mignolet saved one-handed and Benteke stooped to head in.
The maturity of Benteke’s finishing was excellent last night, not least the leap above Cuellar for his second goal from Weimann’s corner. The fourth Villa goal of the night, it ended the game for Sunderland and there was worse to come.
That was the dismissal of Sessègnon, who mistimed a challenge on Yacouba Sylla and came down on his opponent’s foot. It loosely fulfilled the criteria for a sending off and referee Lee Probert brandished the card, although it was little more than a stamp on Sylla’s toe.
Benteke completed his hat-trick with 18 minutes left. The hapless Cuellar lost the ball to Agbonlahor in his own half, tried to win it back and deflected the pass into the path of Benteke who beat Mignolet for the third time at the near post.
Benteke came off before the end but Villa were not finished. A dreadful misjudgement from substitute David Vaughan meant that his pass became a telling throughball for Agbonlahor. He went around Mignolet for the sixth goal, which his performance deserved. A rapturous night for Villa three months after defeat at home to Bradford City in the League Cup semi-final second leg. They hopes those days are now behind them.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baler; Bennett; Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Sylla, Agbonlahor; Benteke
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardsley, Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose; Johnson, N’Diaye, Gardner, Larsson; Sessegnon, Graham
Sent off: Sunderland Sessègnon (70)
Man of the match Benteke
Match rating 8/10
Referee L Probert (South Gloucestershire)