Birmingham: Aston Villa moved closer to avoiding relegation from the Premier League after Christian Benteke scored a second-half hat trick in a 6-1 thrashing of Sunderland on Monday. The Belgian international scored in the 55th, 60th and 72nd minutes at Villa Park to tally 22 league goals and 27 in all competitions in his first season at the club.
More importantly, Villa moved five points clear of Wigan in the final relegation place. Sunderland, Villa and Newcastle are all on 37 points with three matches left. Wigan have 32 points but with four games remaining.
"He's been world class," Villa manager Paul Lambert said of Benteke. "First and foremost, we had to win the game. We were playing against a Sunderland team bang in form. To get the goals we did, it gives us a great impetus to go to Norwich (at the weekend). We have put a lot of teams in the mix, pulled away from Wigan and are playing really well."
First-half strikes from Ron Vlaar and Andreas Weimann plus a late runaway goal by Gabriel Agbonlahor ensured Villa recorded their largest win since 2008. Danny Rose scored for Sunderland to level at 1-1, but the visitors were then over run in midfield and couldn't contain Villa's rampant attacks.
Making matters worse, striker Stephane Sessegnon received a red card in the 70th minute for fouling Yacouba Sylla and will miss the rest of the season. That leaves manager Paolo di Canio with only Danny Graham and Connor Wickham as his remaining striker options. Neither player has scored for Sunderland in the league this season.
Vlaar scored his first goal for the club in the 31st minute, the captain taking a touch and unleashing a low, skidding shot from 30 yards out to beat goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Less than two minutes later, Rose scored his first goal for his club, playing a pair of one-twos before slotting the ball beyond goalkeeper Brad Guzan and into the far corner of the net.
Weimann restored Villa's advantage with his 12th goal of the season, slamming the ball into the net from inside the box in the 38th. Villa had a third 10 minutes into the second half. Mignolet was deceived by Agbonlahor's fiercely struck shot, and Benteke nodded the rebound into an empty net.
"He's scored so many goals, you can always give the ball to him- he's so strong," Vlaar said of Benteke.
Five minutes later, Benteke rose above Carlos Cueller to steer home a far post header before driving his third past Mignolet. Sunderland's misery was complete in the final minute when Agbonlahor raced round Mignolet to end the rout.