Wickham at the double as Sunderland eye great escape
Connor Wickham continued his rich vein of scoring form, finding the net twice to help Sunderland climb out of the bottom three thanks to a 4-0 win over fellow Premier League strugglers Cardiff City.
The Welshmen replaced the Wearside club in propping-up the division after Wickham made it five goals in three games.
He also earned a penalty converted by Fabio Borini to double the hosts' lead in first-half stoppage time at the Stadium of Light on Sunday.
A priceless win for Gus Poyet's side saw them climb to 17th, out of the bottom three for the first time in more than two months with three games remaining.
That gave Sunderland renewed hope of beating the drop thanks to a return of seven points from the last possible nine.
It was a rather more bleak picture for Cardiff, who were forced to play the second half with 10 men after defender Juan Cala was sent off.
Given their goal-difference, they are effectively three points adrift of safety with just two games remaining. They make an immediate return to the north-east of England next week at out of form Newcastle, before finishing the campaign at home to Chelsea on May 11.
They came close to reducing the arrears after the break, as manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer threw on substitutes Wilfried Zaha and former Black Cats favourite Kenwyne Jones in a bid to force the issue.
It took a fine save from Vito Mannone to keep out Peter Whittingham's deflected long-range free-kick midway through the second half as the hosts were forced back, until late goals from substitute Emanuele Giaccherini and a second from Wickham provided a slightly flattering final scoreline.
Much of the hard work was done before the break as Sunderland surged into a two-goal lead en route to only their second home league win since November.
Despite dominating for long spells, they had to wait until the 28th minute to go ahead, the deadlock-breaking goal arriving thanks to some abject defending from the visitors.
Former Sunderland forward Fraizer Campbell missed an attempted clearing header from Seb Larsson's corner, allowing the ball across the six-yard area to the far post. Wickham comfortably held off an ineffective challenge from defender Kevin Theophile-Catherine to send a looping header over Whittingham on the line and into the opposite far corner.
- Controversial second goal -
Jack Colback fired narrowly wide from long-range after capitalising on more defensive uncertainty from Cardiff, but Sunderland didn't have long to wait before claiming the contest's crucial second goal.
It arrived in controversial circumstances, Cala earning a straight red card for hauling back Wickham after the forward intercepted the central defender's weak back-pass.
Replays showed the offence started outside the area, though the shirt-tug continued into the box, before referee Phil Dowd pulled play back to award a penalty after the initial advantage came to nothing.
Borini ignored the lengthy protests to beat goalkeeper David Marshall low to the goalkeeper's left.
Sunderland's on-loan Liverpool forward remained a constant threat, and played a major role in the third goal with 14 minutes left, Giaccherini running onto his pass to out-muscle Gary Medel and slip a shot under Marshall three minutes after entering the fray as a substitute.
Sunderland travel next to Manchester United, before welcoming West Brom and Swansea in the final week of the season as they close-in on the 36-point safety mark set by head coach Poyet.
They will go to Old Trafford with confidence high after Wickham pounced for the fourth goal with four minutes remaining, again evading the attentions of Theophile-Catherine to head home via a slight deflection off the hapless defender from a Giaccherini corner.