A glorious and memorable night for Aston Villa delivered their best performance of the season and an emphatic victory that gave their survival hopes a huge boost and brought Paolo Di Canio and Sunderland crashing down to earth. Inspired by the brilliant Christian Benteke, who took his goal tally for the season to 22 with a second-half hat-trick, Villa were rampant against a Sunderland side whose miserable evening was complete when Stéphane Sessègnon received a straight red card.

Sessègnon, who was dismissed, a little harshly, for a stamp on Yacouba Sylla, faces an automatic three-match ban that rules him out for the remainder of the season unless the decision is overturned on appeal, adding to the woes of a Sunderland team who have been dragged right back into the relegation battle by this humiliating defeat.

Apart from Danny Rose's splendid goal, which cancelled out Ron Vlaar's opener, nothing went right for a Sunderland side who were unrecognisable from the team that defeated Newcastle and Everton in their previous two fixtures. Di Canio marched over to the travelling supporters at the final whistle and held his hands up by way of an apology.

Although Sunderland were desperately poor, credit has to go Villa for the way they took the game by the scruff of the neck. Paul Lambert's side snapped into tackles, moved the ball with purpose, attacked with menace, in particular on the counterattack and were ruthless in front of goal. It was the first time they have scored six goals at home in 18 years, since Wimbledon were thumped 7-1, and it is impossible to overstate the impact that this victory could have on their hopes of pulling clear of the drop zone.

With renewed belief coursing through Lambert's players, Villa go into the final three games of the season level on points with Sunderland, above Newcastle United on goal difference and breathing down the necks of Norwich, whom they face at Carrow Road on Saturday. More significantly, they have opened up a five-point gap on Wigan Athletic, who occupy the final relegation place and host Villa on the last day of the season.

While this was an outstanding Villa team display, there were some exceptional individual performances. Gabriel Agbonlahor was a constant threat, Matthew Lowton enhanced his burgeoning reputation with an exceptional assist for the second goal while Benteke was simply unplayable. Signed from Genk for £7m in the summer, the 22-year-old has been a revelation and it is easy to understand why the leading Premier League clubs are looking on enviously.

There had been no sign of what was to come here during an opening half-hour that was something of a slow-burner until Vlaar lit the touchpaper when he registered his first goal for the club in the 31st minute. Ashley Westwood's shot was only half-cleared, inviting the Dutch centre-back to step forward and thump a 30-yard drive that fizzed off the greasy surface and, via a slight deflection off Carlos Cuéllar, who endured a miserable evening against his former club, nestled in the bottom corner.

Within two minutes Sunderland were level after Rose started and finished a sublime move on the left flank. The left-back played a one-two with Adam Johnson and, after continuing his run, swapped passes with Danny Graham before beating Brad Guzan. If there were questions about how a callow Villa side would respond at that stage, they came up with all the right answers, starting with a beautifully constructed goal that underlined their reputation as counterattack specialists.

Lowton read Craig Gardner's intention to strike a diagonal pass to Johnson and, showing superb technique, took the ball on his chest before sprinting forward. The right-back then had the awareness as well as the technique to pick out Andreas Weimann with a glorious floated pass. The ball was so perfectly weighted that Weimann had no need to break his stride before finishing across Simon Mignolet.

Applauded off at half-time, Villa carried on where they left off and struck twice in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Agbonlahor, who had squandered a decent chance to put Villa ahead earlier in the night, linked adroitly with Benteke before skipping round a couple of half-hearted challenges and drilling a left-footed shot that took a deflection, forcing Mignolet into a one-handed save. With Sunderland's defenders on their heels, Benteke reacted quickest and nodded into the unguarded net.

Sunderland were still reeling from that setback when Benteke pounced again, towering above Cuéllar, his marker, as well as John O'Shea, to head Westwood's corner beyond Mignolet. With the visitors now in a state of disarray, Villa were enjoying themselves and opening their opponents up almost at will. In the space of a few seconds Weimann was denied by Mignolet and then Cuéllar, who hacked off the line, before Benteke added his third and Villa's fifth. Cuéllar was dispossessed by Agbonlahor and the ball eventually broke to Benteke, who beat Mignolet at his near post.

By that point Sunderland were already down to 10 men, after Lee Probert, the referee, sent off Sessègnon for a clumsy, although arguably not malicious, challenge on Sylla. If Sunderland hoped for sympathy, they got none from a Villa side determined to inflict more pain. Agbonlahor delivered the final blow, running on to a wayward pass from the substitute David Vaughan before sashaying round Mignolet and putting the ball into the net.