Birmingham - Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio has apologised to the club's fans after his side's hopes of Premier League survival were hit in a chastening 6-1 defeat at Aston Villa.
Sunderland had overcome Newcastle United and Everton in their two previous games, but they were abruptly brought down to earth at Villa Park on Monday in a game that saw Villa striker Christian Benteke score a second-half hat-trick.
The result left Sunderland level on 37 points with Villa and Newcastle, five points above the relegation zone, and prompted Di Canio to say sorry to his side's travelling fans.
"We have to apologise to the supporters," said the Italian. "You can lose with a big gap, but the way it happened was not acceptable.
"It is beautiful to be there with the fans when you win against Newcastle. But you also have to stand in front of them when you lose heavily."
Sunderland responded quickly after Ron Vlaar put Villa ahead with a long-range strike in the 31st minute, equalising within two minutes through Danny Rose, but Andreas Weimann restored Villa's lead shortly before half-time and the home side did not look back.
Benteke ran in a 17-minute hat-trick, before Gabriel Agbonlahor completed victory with Villa's sixth goal in the 88th minute.
"There were two different teams on the field," said Di Canio.
"Aston Villa had a ferocity. They had desire and ambition, like it was the last chance of their lives. For us, after two wins in a row, our stomach was a bit full.
"When you eat a lot, you relax, you sleep. Now we have to work with blood in our eyes."
Di Canio also confirmed that the club would appeal against the red card shown to attacking midfielder Stephane Sessegnon, who was sent off in the second half for a late challenge on Yacouba Sylla.
"There was nothing in it," Di Canio said. "The leg was not straight. He didn't want to cause any damage to his opponent. The referee fell in a trap. It wasn't a nasty action."
Villa manager Paul Lambert lavished praise on Benteke, who has now scored 22 goals in all competitions in his debut season at the club.
"You can't speak highly enough of him," said Lambert. "He keeps his feet on the ground and is hungry to have success as a footballer.
"He is a big lad and everyone can see his technique is fabulous. He played a lot of games for Genk. He is Belgium's main target player and they are going to qualify for the World Cup.
"People forget he is 22. He has a big career in front of him, as long as he keeps working hard."