Villa find their inner Di Canio
The house always wins, they say. No wonder. While it had seemed perplexing that the predictably unpredictable Aston Villa were clear favourites to win their basement face-off with resurgent Sunderland on Monday morning, the bookies clearly knew something we didn't.
It seemed obvious by the end, with Villa fans relishing an unfamiliar comfort, olé-ing their team's every pass and shouting 'shoot!' at every man in claret and blue to cross the halfway line. By then the visitors were punch-drunk, brushed aside by the irresistible force of Christian Benteke, who helped himself to a second-half hat-trick over 17 giddy minutes.
Darren Bent, whose goals dug Villa out of a hole at the bottom two years ago, might once have been the target of serious Sunderland ire in this context having left the north-east suddenly back in 2011. Yet he is now a peripheral figure, just one more in the number 20's shadow.
Benteke has been more than this season's answer to Bent, not just eclipsing him in terms of goals (he has struck 13 times in the Premier League in this calendar year alone), he has led, dazzled and inspired, belying his reputation in Belgium as temperamental.
If Benteke was ultimately the executioner, he was not alone in his good work for Paul Lambert's side. He was ably assisted by the other two components of Villa's attacking triumvirate - Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Yet, from back to front, Villa were zesty and combative. Sunderland arrived with their tails up and ready to play, but from somewhere, Villa had found the sort of bravery that Paolo Di Canio had appeared to bring with him through the gates of the Stadium of Light three weeks ago.
Yacouba Sylla had been brought into midfield for Charles N'Zogbia, perhaps sacrificing wit for muscle. It is undeniable that stomach is more important than style in this tense final strait, but Villa managed to display both here. When the front three of Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann are in full flight, they sometimes seem like a Porsche spoiler clumsily grafted onto a Smart chassis.
Here, the floodgates were opened in fine style by one of the team's less effusive performers. With the rain pouring in the game's opening twenty minutes and Sunderland passing with authority, the conditions seemed ripe for another besuited knee skid by the excitable Di Canio. Instead, it was home skipper Ron Vlaar who ended up performing one, and not without good cause. The captain had spoken before the match about the team's responsibility to the employees off the pitch.
After Ashley Westwood's shot from the edge of the area was charged down just after the half-hour, he took the bull by the horns, nipping ahead of Stephane Sessegnon to bring the ball forward before unleashing a firm shot low into Simon Mignolet's right-hand corner from range.
The lead lasted little more than a minute, as visiting left-back Danny Rose accepted a neat return flick from Graham to power into the penalty area and slot a low finish past Brad Guzan. Still - unlike too often this season - Villa were not cowed. They responded with heart. Weimann controlled a super diagonal pass from Matt Lowton instantly before sidefooting calmly into the far corner, completing a trio of first-half goals entirely in contrast with the two sides' lowly standing in the table.
The Holte End even felt suitably buoyed to chance a chorus of 'The City Is Ours' at their blue-hued neighbours, but this Villa team being what they are, it seemed unlikely to become a cakewalk. A less understanding official than Lee Probert might have allowed Guzan to be punished for spilling Sebastian Larsson's cross after colliding with Graham just before the interval, which Gardner subsequently put in the net, rather than calling the former Swansea man for a foul.
The wind was, however, really with Villa. If Benteke will again garner headlines, Agbonlahor was outstanding. In the first half, with the score goalless, he had missed out scoring one of the club's goals of the season - even bearing in mind Lowton's recent rocket at Stoke - by inches when he rolled the ball agonisingly wide of Mignolet's far post after he powered through the heart of Sunderland's backline, exchanging passes with Benteke as he went.
He created the crucial third ten minutes into the second period, when another slalom ended with a shot with power that appeared to catch Mignolet by surprise, and Benteke gratefully stooped to nod the rebound into the prone net after the goalkeeper failed to gather or push clear. He deserved the fortune that created a late goal for him. Substitute David Vaughan had been on the pitch for no more than a few minutes when his loose pass turned into the perfect invitation for Agbonlahor to race through and help to a scarcely-believable number six.
There had almost been another instant Sunderland reply after Villa's third, with Alfred N'Diaye narrowly failing to connect with Adam Johnson's inswinging cross. Yet Benteke quickly assuaged the doubts, converting Westwood's corner with a robust back-post header before beating an unconvincing Mignolet at his near post.
The visiting fans were at least giving a good account of themselves on a night of tension. Those who bellow that football - and recently, Sunderland's board in appointing to Di Canio - has been sucked inexorably into a black hole of immorality would do well to acknowledge a particular fervently enacted minute of applause, the now-customary 19th minute 'Support Stan' - a show of solidarity with Villa's ill skipper Petrov - enthusiastically observed by the visiting section as well. It did them credit on a bad night, with Sessegnon shown a red card when a yellow might have been more fitting for a clumsy late challenge on Sylla. The Benin attacker's suspension could yet weigh as heavily on the battle at the bottom as Villa turning around their dire goal difference to approach parity with rivals Newcastle and Wigan.
It is difficult to know whether Newcastle supporters will be grateful to the Midlanders for stopping their deadly rivals breaking away from the relegation bunfight, or left fearful that they are emerging as the most out-of-form of the strugglers at just the wrong time. Without Wigan picking up a few points quickly, it won't matter. Over to you, Latics.