Surging Toffees show no mercy to sink Black Cats
Sunderland 0 Everton 1
Winning ugly is not really Roberto Martinez's thing but his Everton players made a decent fist of grinding out a strictly no-frills victory that promises to help propel them on to the Champions League stage.
Secured courtesy of Wes Brown's own goal, this was far from the sort of fluent, beautifully crafted triumph that is becoming synonymous with Martinez's side, but its importance should not be underestimated.
Up to fourth place, two points clear of Arsenal, a huge prize is now within Everton's grasp. Their manager was congratulated with the warmest of embraces from his old friend and former Real Zaragoza team-mate Gus Poyet at the final whistle as the Uruguayan put a brave face on a defeat that all but confirms Sunderland's relegation.
Martinez said his side would need to break records to hold on to a Champions League place. "At this stage with 63 points, you are always guaranteed to finish top four. Now, clearly, one team is going to be out of that with that return. The way the competition is going, it's always harder now to win the title and I think it's the same for the fourth place and so on."
After acknowledging that his bottom-placed side required "a miracle" to stay out of the Championship, Poyet had pledged to "go back to basics" and he did not disappoint. Sure enough, he abandoned his recent experiment with a back five, recalled Jack Colback to central midfield and even swapped his matchday suit for a tracksuit.
His players responded with vim and vigour, but not too much finesse when it came to delivering the final ball. Yet much as their reversion to 4-1-4-1 seemed to have improved them, all things are relative and Everton enjoyed most of afternoon's more dangerous attacking moments.
When Gerard Deulofeu, the exciting young winger borrowed from Barcelona, broke at speed it took some intelligent defensive positioning from Colback to manoeuvre him into a position from where his eventual shot was easy for Vito Mannone.
Brown, though, had no answers when Steven Naismith connected with a Leighton Baines pass before seamlessly turning him and then shooting, rather wastefully, over the bar. It represented a reprieve for Sunderland, who swiftly benefited from another bit of good fortune when Leon Osman's shot was deflected to safety.
Suitably encouraged Poyet's players raised their collective game. John Stones was required to scoop an angled Fabio Borini shot off the line, while James McCarthy's excellent block denied Adam Johnson. With Connor Wickham, Sunderland's lone striker, showing some much improved hold-up play, Poyet had reason to feel modestly encouraged at half-time.
The increasing ferocity with which Martinez chewed gum as he stood, arms folded, in his technical area confirmed that Everton were not having things quite all their own way. It was not long before the visiting manager liberated Ross Barkley from the bench, the youngster replacing Osman as Everton took a turn at upping the attacking tempo. When Mannone fluffed an attempted headed clearance the ball dropped conveniently for Naismith only for the midfielder to spurn a second clear-cut chance. As his volley swerved wide the disappointment writ large across Martinez's face served as a reminder that such misses can represent the difference between the Champions League and the Europa.
For all Sunderland's huff and puff, Tim Howard had not really been tested but Everton's goalkeeper needed a second attempt to gather Ki Sun-yueng's low shot from outside the area.
Then, just as mood of cautious optimism began permeating the stands, Brown's week took another turn for the worse. As if receiving a black eye during Monday's 5-1 thrashing at Tottenham was not bad enough, Brown's own goal offered Everton renewed hope of trips to Bayern Munich, Barcelona et al next season. Deulofeu did the damage. Cutting in from the right the winger dodged Marcos Alonso before unleashing a cross shot that deflected off Brown and beyond Mannone.
Although Howard did well to save a shot by Wickham, Sunderland lacked the kind of Deulofeu-esque invention and incision required to persuade Wearside to start believing in miracles.
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