Sunderland v Everton
Everton's Champions League dream took another step towards becoming reality after the Blues moved into fourth with a record-breaking seventh straight Premier League win.
Wes Brown’s own goal a quarter of an hour before the end decided a game which had seemed destined to end in a stalemate.
Relegation-threatened Sunderland put up a valiant effort, but it was a deserved victory for the Blues who, having demolished Arsenal a week earlier, this time had to grind out the three precious points.
Everton have now leapfrogged the Gunners in the league standings and have the opportunity to extend their points advantage over Arsene Wenger's side to five when they host Crystal Palace on Wednesday evening.
The contest in the North East began at 3.07pm - the kick off delayed in memory of the 96 Liverpool supporters who lost their lives at Hillsborough 25 years ago this week.
With games running out in the battle to preserve their Premier League status, Sunderland’s fans understood the magnitude of this match. They were vocal in their support from the outset and this provided a welcome shot-in-the-arm for the hosts, who started the contest reasonably brightly.
Fabio Borini had the game’s first opportunity but his angled drive was always rising and flew harmlessly over Tim Howard’s crossbar.
Everton didn’t take long to get into their stride and for much of the first half the Blues had Sunderland pinned back in their own territory.
Gerard Deulofeu – in for Kevin Mirallas in what was the only change to the starting line-up from the Arsenal victory – should have done better when he was on the end of a brisk counter-attack. Everton broke forward at speed and the Spaniard opted to go alone, despite having Steven Naismith unmarked on the far side. In the end, Vito Mannone made a comfortable save low down.
Naismith was presented with an excellent opportunity minutes later but he blazed over the bar from 10-yards out after spinning around Brown like he wasn’t there.
Leon Osman had won his fight to be fit following a cut eye and he volleyed over from the edge of the box as Everton continued to exert pressure on Sunderland.
Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku then went close, either side or a rare chance for Sunderland when a back-pass from Leighton Baines was intercepted by Borini, whose effort was cleared off the line by the vigilant John Stones shortly before half-time.
The second half began with a booking a piece for right-backs Seamus Coleman and Phil Bardsley, but there was little in the way of penalty-box action until the 57th minute when a teasing cross by Adam Johnson was headed fractionally wide by Ki Sung-Yeung.
Roberto Martinez threw on Ross Barkley with half an hour left to give Everton an extra creative spark and the midfielder came close to breaking the deadlock five minutes after his introduction when his far-post shot was scrambled around the post by Mannone.
This had come moments after the Italian keeper had a rush of blood to the head, racing out of his box and fluffing a headed clearance which Naismith unfortunately steered narrowly wide of the target with the goal unguarded.
It was looking like it was going to be one of those frustrating afternoons, but with 15 minutes to go Everton got the breakthrough – albeit in scruffy circumstances.
Deulofeu, who had caused problems for Marcos Alonso all afternoon, powered past the Sunderland left-back and delivered a cross from the by-line which ricocheted off Brown and past the helpless Mannone.
Sunderland valiantly searched for a response in the closing stages. Howard twice saved well from Ki and Connor Wickham, while Borini’s curling effort wasn’t far wide.
But Everton dug deep to hold onto the victory and with five games to go they now have hold of one of the coveted Champions League qualification positions.