Paolo Di Canio heads to Aston Villa on Monday night delighted that Sunderland have responded so positively to his coaching and confident that, given time, he can improve several players by a further 30%. "Some of them, I can tell you, are still only playing at 70% of their potential," said the manager who knows victory at Villa Park would all but extinguish his club's relegation fears.

"They are very good players but they are not at 100% because they don't have enough energy in the second half and we can't change them physically in a few weeks," he said. Even so, assorted individuals, including Alfred N'Diaye, Adam Johnson and Stéphane Sessègnon have seemed reborn under the Italian's tutelage.

"Stéphane is a talent, a great player," said Di Canio whose work with the Benin forward has been as much psychological as physical. "If Stéphane works as he's done in the last two games [wins at Newcastle and at home to Everton] he's a dangerous opponent but I can tell you, from the games I watched on television prior to signing my contract here, Stéphane did not give his best.

"For me, your best is when you are playing with your brain and Stéphane is now playing with his brain. But when I watched the Manchester United game [which Sunderland lost 1-0 at home hours before Martin O'Neill's sacking] on television Stéphane only played when he had the ball or was in a position to ask for it."

Di Canio's emphasis on what Sunderland do when the opposition have possession has been integral to Sessègnon's renaissance. "I hope my advice can keep helping him as much as it has during the past two games," he said. "If someone doesn't do what I want to see in training, I will tell them, I wouldn't care if he is Lionel Messi.

"But I don't want Stéphane thinking too much during a game because that might stop him using his talent. There are times when I allow him a free moment because he is a fantasy player – like I was – and if you give them too much advice it can put them under pressure."

He trusts sustained application of the Di Canio treatment will prove career-transforming. Sunderland's new manager – who has dubbed the visit to Villa as "our Champions League final" – certainly does not share O'Neill's view that the squad lacks "real, true ability".

"The players here are very good," Di Canio said. Already, in what can be interpreted as a damning indictment of his predecessor, he appears to have coaxed Johnson's long hidden talent out of hibernation. "Adam for example. If I say he can do even better it's not a big criticism, it's just he has the qualities to play better but, game by game, we can improve.

"It isn't difficult. Di Canio is not magic. I just know football. The players are intelligent. They can see the benefit of working hard."