SUNDERLAND were hit for six both literally and metaphorically at Vila Park last night.
Literally, because they shipped half-a-dozen goals in a single match for the first time in more than three years; metaphorically, because, honestly, no-one saw this one coming.
Sunderland have been a team transformed since Paolo Di Canio arrived at the start of the month to inject urgency, organisation, discipline and focus.
A defeat was always possible last night of course, despite momentum being on the Black Cats’ side thanks to back-to-back wins over Newcastle and Everton.
But no-one foresaw not just a defeat but a dismantling of the red and whites as comprehensive and brutal as it was humiliating and embarrassing.
Even the early stages of the match offered little indication of the hammering that was to come as both teams set off on a game which – considering how much money depends on Premier League survival this season – ranks high in importance in this fixture’s long history.
When these two great clubs met 100 years ago this week, it was effectively for a game to decide which team would be champions of England. Sunderland won that game, though Villa had the consolation of winning the FA Cup against the Wearsiders just four days earlier.
Fast forward a century and those glory, glory days are not even a distant memory, as the two under-achieving clubs slog it out at the wrong end of the top flight.
And yet - though the 2013 vintage of both clubs is not as successful as it once was - there was no faulting the commitment and desire shown by either side in an absorbing opening half-hour played at frantic pace on a rain-sodden Villa Park last night.
As the Echo had predicted, Di Canio made two changes to the side which beat Everton the previous week – Craig Gardner returning from suspension, Phil Bardsley from injury, to replace James McClean and Jack Colback who dropped to the bench.
It was not without some irony that both Bardsley and Gardner would go on to have poor performances they will be in a rush to forget – what was that saying about not changing a winning side?
It certainly did not look a bad call initially though.
The heavens opened as the game kicked off but it wasn’t long before Villa must have felt like it was Sunderland raining down on them.
After a subdued opening couple of minutes in which Simon Mignolet took down a testing cross into his area, Sunderland began to assert themselves, winning the midfield battles and making good use of their wide men.
The Black Cats could not get clear cut chances in those opening 10 minutes but Danny Graham with a back heel and Craig Gardner with a charged down shot almost prospered as Stephane Sessegnon and Adam Johnson asked questions of the Villa rearguard.
Sunderland were pressing well and closing down quickly but they were also wastefully giving the ball away far too often - much to the concern of Di Canio on the touchline, who might have self-combusted, had he not been drenched from head to toe.
After a promising start, in which they more than matched the energy levels of the home side, Sunderland began to fade, perhaps losing a little heart at the way their moves continually broke down.
And as the contest stretched to the midway point of the first half, the game had become exactly what it was – a scrappy contest between two relegation-threatened teams.
Twice Sunderland might have hurt Villa in those moments – but Adam Johnson’s touch for once let him down from a fine Gardner pass and then Rose over-ran the ball after panicking the home defence on the edge of their 18-yard box.
These were expensive moments of sloppiness and Sunderland were soon made to pay for not taking advantage of good possession.
A warning shot came in the 25th minute when striker Christian Benteke dinked a one-two ball over the top for Gaby Agbonlahor to run onto and the striker, with only Simon Mignolet to beat, dragged his low shot a yard wide of the keeper’s right-hand post when it seemed certain he would score.
Villa did not have to wait much longer though and took the lead just after the half hour when Ashley Westwood’s shot was blocked and centre-half Ron Vlaar sprinted on to the loose ball to drive a vicious swerving shot through a crowded penalty area and home from 25 yards.
It was the Dutch defender’s first goal for Villa.
But not to be outdone, Danny Rose notched his first in Sunderland colours before the tumultuous cheers had died in the throats of Villa fans.
It was a deliciously worked equaliser with the England Under 21 man taking return passes from Gardner and Danny Graham as he came in from the left wing to finally take up possession inside the box, left of goal, driving a shot into the far corner.
That sparked a furious response from Villa, who piled on pressure, now dominating the game.
But just as it looked as if Sunderland had ridden it out, they shot themselves in the foot when Gardner tried an ambitious cross-field ball in the 38th minute which right-back Matthew Lowton intercepted..
Sprinting forward with Sunderland flat-footed, he spotted the run of Andreas Weimann up the left flank and the pass was as good as the control which met it.
Having set the ball perfectly, Weimann stroked a low shot past the advancing Mignolet and into the far corner to give his side the lead again and underline the end-to-end nature of the game.
Sunderland looked for a sting in the tale and might have found it in the 43rd minute when a long ball forward saw Graham challenge Brad Guzan, the American keeper drop the ball, and Gardner fire into an empty net but the striker was judged to have fouled and the goal did not stand.
Replays showed there was not much there in terms of a foul and perhaps this was the pivotal moment of the game because if referee Lee Probert had let it stand and both sides had gone in level at the break, we might have had a very different match.
Instead, Sunderland came out forced to chase the game against one of the best counter-attacking sides in the Premier League and they paid the price in the 55th minute after a rare mistake by Player of the Season-elect Mignolet..
The keeper was deceived in the flight of a long-range Gaby Agbonlahor shot and his stiff arm block was only enough to drop the ball right in front of the onrushing Benteke who stooped to head home from six yards.
Sunderland tried to respond from having gone 3-1 down and a cross by Johsnon into the danger area saw the busy Alfred N’Diaye stretch but unable to make contact at the far post.
But any prospective fightback was killed off before the hour mark when Bardsley needlessly put the ball out for a corner and from Westwood’s ball in from the left, Benteke left Carlos Cuellar for dead and headed powerfully down and in at the far post.
Sunderland made a change – McClean on for Larsson – as his side looked to salvage something but the Holte End was rocking now and Villa had their tails up.
It could have been worse in the 66th minute when only a point-blank save from Mignolet and then a goal-line clearance from Cuellar, both from Weimann shots, prevented the score reaching five.
The goal-line was eventually to reach five and worse but before that Sunderland suffered a blow almost as crushing as this heavy defeat when Sessegnon was adjudged to have gone over the top in a foul on Yacouba Sylla in the 70th minute and was shown a straight red card by the referee.
If looked a harsh judgement but if the card is upheld then a three-match ban will have effectively ended Sessegnon’s season and made Sunderland’s relegation fears all the greater.
As it was, the dismissal ensured a torrid end to the game for Sunderland.
Villa’s fifth came in the 73rd minute when the increasingly hapless Cuellar gifted possession to the visitors and Benteke, on the left of goal, kept his composure to fired through Mignolet at his near post.
Mignolet was to make two five saves before the game was up – the best being a low dive to Weimann’s driven shot in the 84th minute – but the sixth goal game a couple of minutes from full time when a suicidal back pass from substitute David Vaughan completely missed its target and played in Agbonlahor who made no mistake after rounding Mignolet.
There was just time for youngster Mikael Mandron to come on and the teenage striker might have made it a dream debut with a close-range header which Guzan did well to block on his line.
A goal then though wouldn’t even have qualified as a silver lining on a night so crushing for Sunderland’s players that for the first time this season they did not give post-match interviews.
Sunderland’s plight is so uncomfortable now that there is no time for sulking or licking wounds.
They must pick themselves immediately up for their next game – with or without Sessegnon.
But it can be no comfort to know that the next game is again on a Monday, and the Black Cats’ winless streak on Monday evenings – after last night’s defeat at Villa – now runs to 17 matches, stretching all the way back to 2002.