SUNDERLAND’S biggest win of the season saw them move out of the Premier League’s relegation zone after a crucial 4-0 victory against 10-man Cardiff.
The Black Cats ended their three-month wait for a league victory at the Stadium of Light in style, to record back-to-back wins for only the second time this season.
Connor Wickham broke the deadlock midway through the first half when he headed hom e Seb Larsson’s corner before the England Under-21 striker was hauled back by Cardiff centre-half Juan Cala when clean through on goal.
After initially playing an advantage, referee Phil Dowd sent Cala off before awarding Sunderland a penalty which Fabio Borini converted.
Substitute Emanuele Giaccherini sealed Sunderland’s success in the final 20 minutes, before Wickham’s fifth goal in three games put the icing on a huge victory in the relegation dogfight.
Two wins from the final three games of the season will now definitely be enough for Sunderland to avoid the drop.
Sunderland were unchanged for the third game in a row after Gus Poyet opted to keep faith with the side which earned a four-point haul at Manchester City and Chelsea.
There were three fresh faces on the bench though with Craig Gardner, Phil Bardsley and Liam Bridcutt taking the places of Ondrej Celustka, El-Hadji Ba and Charis Mavrias.
Cardiff made just one change with Don Cowie taking the place of Kim Bo-Kyung on the wing.
Bluebirds stopper David Marshall made a nervy start, flapping at Seb Larsson’s cross from the left and then palming behind Connor Wickham’s follow-up pull-back at the near post.
Larsson headed Wickham’s through-ball straight at Marshall from 15 yards in the eighth minute, when the Swede had the chance to bring it down and have a shot.
Cardiff then began to take the sting out of game; keeping possession well and getting men behind the ball when Sunderland came forwards.
But just as the Black Cats were beginning to get frustrated, they broke the deadlock in the 26th minute as Wickham netted his fourth in three games.
Larsson’s corner from the left was allowed to drift all the way to the far post where Wickham got above Kevin Theophile-Catherine and directed his header back across goal into the top corner.
In the 35th minute, Jack Colback pounced on Steve Caulker’s knock down, 30 yards out, but sent his left-foot shot a yard wide of the post.
A minute before the interval, Sunderland doubled their advantage, while Cardiff were reduced to 10 men, after a huge call from referee Phil Dowd.
Juan Cala was caught in possession midway inside his own half by Wickham, leaving the 21-year-old with a clear run on goal.
Cala hauled back Wickham’s shirt outside the area and then continued pulling the striker back as he found his way into the box.
Dowd allowed the advantage to go on, yet Wickham was not able to tuck the ball away as he attempted to go around Marshall.
But Dowd then brought the play back and awarded the spot-kick, before handing Cala a straight red card.
Borini stepped up to the penalty spot and tucked it calmly away into the bottom right-hand corner.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 2 Cardiff 0
Borini curled a right-footed shot a couple of yards wide of the far corner in the 49th minute after picking the ball up with his back to goal on the left-hand side of the box.
Cardiff had an excellent chance to pull one back in the 58th minute when Jordon Mutch met Peter Whittingham’s corner from the left.
Mutch should have at least hit the target, 10 yards out, but sent his header well wide.
The visitors went close again in the 65th minute when Whittingham’s free-kick from 25 yards took a wicked deflection off the Sunderland wall which threatened to wrong-foot Vito Mannone.
But the Sunderland keeper readjusted excellently to parry the ball away low to his right.
Marshall produced a stunning save to deny Sunderland a third in the 73rd minute, albeit he knew little about it.
Colback drilled in a left-footed cross from the left-hand side of the area, which Borini met with a stabbed volley from six yards out.
But Mannone had got himself in position to block the ball with his body from point-blank range.
The crucial third for Sunderland did arrive in the 76th minute as Giaccherini netted his fifth goal for the Black Cats.
It came at the end of a flowing move which Wickham hold the ball up well and feed Borini, who played a clever reverse pass in behind the Cardiff back-line.
Giaccherini ran onto it and tucked it away inside the near post.
Colback then whistled a shot just a foot over the bar as Sunderland pushed for a fourth.
That goal did arrive with four minutes to go, again from Wickham, as the striker met Giaccherini’s corner from the left six yards out and cushioned his header inside the near post.
Cardiff should have pulled one back in the 88th minute when substitute Craig Bellamy beat Santiago Vergini down the left and crossed for ex-Sunderland frontman Kenwyne Jones, who sent his header over from six yards out.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 4 Cardiff 0
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, Alonso, Cattermole, Colback (Bridcutt 84), Larsson (Giaccherini 73), Johnson (Gardner 84), Borini, Wickham. Subs not used: Ustari, Bardsley, Altidore, Scocco. Booked: Vergini (37), Larsson (54), Giaccherini (77), Borini (83), Gardner (90)
CARDIFF: Marshall, Theophile-Catherine, Caulker, Cala, Fabio (Jones 64), Cowie (Zaha 46), Medel, Whittingham, Daehli, Mutch, Campbell (Bellamy 74). Subs not used: Lewis, Turner, Eikrem, John. Booked: Mutch (35), Medel (39), Fabio (53). Sent off: Cala (44)