Keeping Cleverley at Villa a priority for Sherwood
Aston Villa 3 Everton 2
Two more goals for Christian Benteke and a second in a week for Tom Cleverley sealed a win for Aston Villa that might in time be seen as their biggest of the season as Tim Sherwood battles to keep them in the Premier League.
With both Leicester and Sunderland winning, a defeat against Everton, who arrived at Villa Park having taken 16 points from their previous six matches, would have put the FA Cup finalists back in the bottom three with only three matches left.
Villa had a spring in their step from the start, with Jack Grealish pushed up in support of Benteke, who put them ahead after 10 minutes, soaring above Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines to reach Fabian Delph's cross and direct his header past Tim Howard.
Everton looked insipid for most of the first half and fell further behind when Benteke made the most of poor marking to slam the ball home after Ron Vlaar got the faintest of touches to Grealish's corner.
The visitors began the second half more brightly and won a potential lifeline. Vlaar tripped Steven Naismith and Romelu Lukaku, succeeding where Baines, Barkley and Kevin Mirallas have all failed this season, scored from the spot, stopping dead in his run-up before sliding the ball into the net.
Villa restored their two-goal advantage within five minutes after Leandro Bacuna played a great pass to leave Cleverley one-on-one with Tim Howard. The midfielder, who had not scored in 16 months before he opened his Villa account at Manchester City last week, took his chance like a striker, smashing into the top corner.
Into stoppage time, Shay Given - called up for his first Premier League start in almost three years after Brad Guzan's howler against Manchester City - was caught out by a James McCarthy cross that hit the bar and rebounded to Jagielka, whose header went in off the bar.
Given complained he was impeded by fellow Irish teammate Seamus Coleman and Villa looked nervous momentarily, but the relief of the final whistle was not far away.
Manchester United loanee Cleverley is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with Everton, but Sherwood wants to keep him at Villa Park.
He said: "Tom was excellent. I was a bit worried because I thought he might have one eye on next season when he could be playing for Everton. But he proved he's really focused on doing the job for Villa.
"He works tirelessly around the pitch but he's got more than that. He showed a real cool head in front of goal. He's still auditioning for me, and I'm hoping."
Sherwood added: "I just think there were some heroic performances out there. I thought Fabian Delph showed why he's probably, in my opinion, the best midfield player in the country at the moment.
"I wouldn't swap him for anyone in the mess we're in. If you're an Aston Villa fan, you're loving him.
"He leaves nothing on the field. It's not only about energy and desire, it's about flair and imagination, he's got the whole package. He's a warrior."