BIRMINGHAM - Christian Benteke scored a second-half hat-trick as Aston Villa thrashed Sunderland 6-1 on Monday to give themselves real hope of avoiding relegation from the English Premier League. Victory saw Villa pull five points clear of the drop zone with three games left to play.

FA Cup finalists Wigan, who have a game in hand over the Birmingham club, are now in greatest danger of joining already demoted Queens Park Rangers and Reading as one of the three clubs relegated from England's top flight. Defeat halted Sunderland's revival under Italian manager Paolo di Canio and this loss was compounded by the sending-off of Stephane Sessegnon. It left the Black Cats as one of three clubs on 37 points and completed a miserable round of matches for the north-east after Sunderland's arch-rivals Newcastle were hammered 6-0 at home to Liverpool on Saturday. "It was a fantastic atmosphere, the crowd have been brilliant since I've been here," delighted Villa manager Paul Lambert told Sky Sports.

"I'm delighted for them because they come in their thousands to watch us. It's great credit to the players and staff, that was a massive performance and a big win for us. "I thought Christian Benteke getting man of the match was always on the cards but I thought Matty Lowton was fantastic." Di Canio said Sunderland had paid the price for letting their standards slip following wins over Newcastle and Everton.

"We thought the main job was done," he explained. "This is a medicine that can let us understand that we have to play with desire and commitment, otherwise we have a defeat. It is obvious this is a humiliation that can help. He added: "Every time we can lose, but not in this manner. Aston Villa, a team with real desire, played like (it was) the last chance of their lives.

"Maybe we were fooled by two wins in a row and now we have to make sure we get points against Stoke at home." Ron Vlaar opened the scoring for Villa with a 30-yard screamer that had too much pace and power on it for Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. But barely 60 seconds later, in the 32nd minute, Sunderland equalised when left-back Danny Rose crowned a superb move, exchanging passes with Craig Gardner and Danny Graham, with a well-struck shot. However, at a rainswept Villa Park, Lambert's youthful side responded to the setback in the 38th minute when the unmarked Andreas Weimann turned in Matthew Lowton's cross.

Villa, at 2-1 up, had a lucky break when Brad Guzan saw Graham penalised for knocking the ball out of the goalkeeper's hands, when replays suggested he had lost control before former Villa man Gardner turned the loose ball home.

But instead of 2-2, the visitors found themselves 3-1 down when Belgian striker Benteke, one of the stars of an otherwise miserable season for the Villa faithful, saw the forward pounce in the 55th minute when he headed in the rebound after Mignolet failed to hold a Gabriel Agbonlahor strike. Benteke then demonstrated his aerial power, rising above Carlos Cuellar to head home at the far post before completing his hat-trick with a 22nd goal of a remarkable season.

In between those goals, Sessegnon saw red after flattening Yacouba Sylla before Agbonlahor completed the rout two minutes from time. Di Canio said Sunderland would appeal against a decision which, if not overturned, will rule the forward out for the rest of the season. "We saw the clip, there is not a bad challenge. We will appeal of course."

Aston Villa    6

Sunderland    1