Everton striker Romelu Lukaku became the first striker since Gary Lineker to net 20 league goals in a season as his double helped dismantle Hull City.
The Blues frontman struck twice in as many minutes during added time to add the gloss on a dominant performance from the hosts.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin became the 15th different goalscorer for the Toffees this season – the largest spread of players of any team in the Premier League – when he scored his first goal for the Club and Enner Valencia made it three in his last six appearances to earn a sixth successive home victory for Ronald Koeman’s team, the Blues’ best run of form at home since April 2014.
Level on points with Arsenal, who have a game in hand, the Blues lie only five points behind Liverpool in fourth place, with the Merseyside derby the first game back following the international break.
At the business end of the season, Everton appear to be perfectly poised. The game at Anfield will be followed three days later by another away game at Old Trafford, with Manchester United joining the teams in the battle for fourth, fifth and sixth places. Everton are well and truly in that fight and their superiority in this game was pronounced long before Tom Huddlestone saw red in the 75th minute, reducing Hull to 10 men.
There were two changes from the team that had beaten West Brom a week ago at Goodison, with Kevin Mirallas having been given permission to return home to Belgium following the birth of his daughter. Gareth Barry was the other player to make way, Calvert-Lewin being handed his first start since coming off in the game against Southampton at the beginning of January and Idrissa Gana Gueye replacing Barry in central midfield. Captain Phil Jagielka retained his place at the heart of defence alongside Ashley Williams.
Koeman had reminded his team in the build-up of the difficult challenge Hull had presented in December at the KCOM Stadium. Twice the Toffees had to fight their way back into the game before, ultimately, Calvert-Lewin might have won it at the death with a near-post header that drifted narrowly wide and could have made it 3-2.
If he had nursed the wound of that bitter memory for all this time, he could not have come up with a more resounding response. Ross Barkley was the architect of the move that put the Blues ahead on eight minutes, spreading the ball to Tom Davies on the right side of the penalty area where he had time and space to measure his pass to the back post and Calver-Lewin, timing his run to perfection, applied an emphatic finish which was suitably celebrated. He turned 20 only on Thursday, so it has been a big week for the Sheffield lad.
Everton’s strong start yielded further opportunity, Seamus Coleman driving a shot low and hard towards the near post but Eldin Jakupovic, the Hull goalkeeper, made the save. Calvert-Lewin was revelling in the responsibility and he had a chance to secure a second goal when Barkley crossed from the right, the ball bounced in the box and the 20-year-old at the back post was unable to get the right touch with a header which he glanced wide of Jakupovic’s right-hand post.
Twice Hull threatened through Lazar Markovic, Jagielka dealing with him first time around before the Serbian forward fired over from a half-cleared corner. Everton suffered a blow on the half hour when Morgan Schneiderlin pulled up with a muscle injury, Barry coming on to replace him. One of his first contributions, when the ball came to him circuitously from a corner kick, was to lift the ball into the box for Williams whose looping header lacked the power to trouble Jakupovic.
It was another header at the other end of the pitch that gave Everton their own moment of real anxiety in the opening half. The Welsh international captain misjudged the bouncing ball when it had been played in behind, allowing Sam Clucas to steal in and, seeing Joel Robles out of his goal, lob the ball over the goalkeeper’s head and for a distressing nanosecond seemingly into the empty net. For every Evertonian concerned, relief was the emotion when the ball landed on the roof of the net.
The ball had not been falling for Lukaku all afternoon but when Barkley was able to take advantage of a loose ball and turn around play quickly in the 55th minute the Belgian forward suddenly had possession in a dangerous position on the right flank with only two defenders between him and goal. Predictably, he surged forward strongly before unleashing a powerful left-footed strike that went narrowly over the crossbar.
Everton now had the bit between their teeth. Ramiro Funes Mori replaced Calvert-Lewin, seemingly a tactical switch with the manager reshaping the defence to a back three, and almost instantly the Argentina defender claimed the ball at the back post from an errant punch by Jakupovic from Leighton Baines’s cross and dragged his shot across the face of goal. Baines’s passing was instrumental again when he played a delicious diagonal ball to Lukaku who attacked with intent and produced another howitzer shot which Jakupovic had to repel brilliantly. At the Howard Kendall Gwladys Street End, they rose in unison and chanted Lukaku’s name.
Omar Elabdellaoui’s cross momentarily interrupted the satisfaction that had descended on Goodison, and Andrew Robertson’s half-volleyed effort might have burst the bubble had the ball gone the other side of Robles’s near post as opposed to it rattling the side netting. When Paul Tierney was compelled to dismiss Huddlestone for an ill-judged, studs-showing challenge on Gana – the first time the official had brandished a red card in 13 Premier League games – Hull’s fate was sealed.
Valencia came on for Davies and, within 69 seconds of being introduced, he executed a perfect one-two on the edge of the box with Lukaku, taking the return pass on his chest before beating Jakupovic from close range.
The pair would combine again minutes later, Valencia laying on a fine through ball that Lukaku steered expertly past Jakupovic – league goal number 20 for the Belgian, seeing him match Lineker’s heights. Still he was not done, his 21st of the campaign wasn’t far behind, and when he was sent through on goal again within two minutes, he rounded the Hull keeper and rolled the ball into an empty net.