Wes Brown’s own-goal secured Everton’s victory — the first time since they last won the title in 1987 they have won seven games in a row — and pushed bottom of the table Sunderland closer to relegation.
Brown turned a cross from lively Spaniard Gerard Deulofeu in to his own net quarter of an hour before the end at the Stadium of Light to seal a result that proved significant at both ends of the table.
While the Black Cats were left seven points adrift of safety, Everton leapfrogged Arsenal to take a two point advantage in the race for the fourth and final Champions League place.
Brown’s own goal — the sixth in the Premier League this season by a Sunderland player — was harsh on Gus Poyet’s team who deserved to come away with something from the match.
Sunderland had plenty of possession but failed to seriously test goalkeeper Tim Howard, which has become the story of their season, until the later stages of the first half and Everton should have taken the lead before that.
Roberto Martinez’s visitors had two fantastic early chances.
The first arrived when a Sunderland corner broke down. The blue shirts broke at pace with James McCarthy rolling a clever pass down the left for Deulofeu to chase.
Deulofeu, on loan from Barcelona, twisted and turned until shooting low in to the arms of Italian goalkeeper Vito Mannone despite the option of picking out the unmarked Romelu Lukaku.
Four minutes later there was an even more glaring chance. This time Steven Naismith embarrassed Brown with a lovely turn inside the penalty area, but he completely missed the target from 12 yards when it looked easier to score.
As half-time approached Sunderland found more fluency in their play and started to threaten the Everton penalty area.
– Raise the tempo –
Had it not been for the presence of defender John Stones on the line, Sunderland would have gone ahead. Fabio Borini latched on to a weak back pass from Leighton Baines, rounded Howard before watching his shot from a tight angle thwarted by Stones.
Poyet, who was unable to call on midfielder Liam Bridcutt because the player’s wife had gone in to labour, must have been satisfied just five days after the 5-1 horror show at Tottenham.
But Sunderland needed more than a point.
Whatever Poyet had to say in the dressing room at half-time had the desired effect.
Sunderland raised the tempo and South Korean midfielder Ki Sung-yueng almost opened the scoring, though, when he jumped ahead of Naismith and headed wide from Adam Johnson’s deep and well weighted cross.
After Deulofeu had gone close at the other end and Naismith had wasted another glorious chance — he missed an empty net when Mannone had misjudged a long ball — Sunderland pushed on again.
But the way Connor Wickham and Borini stood and watched Howard fumble then gather a loose ball after Ki’s low shot from distance summed up Sunderland’s afternoon in front of goal.
Then Everton got the break they craved and Sunderland feared with 15 minutes remaining.
Deulofeu got to the byline and crossed towards the six yard box where it hit former Manchester United defender Brown’s leg and beat Mannone at his near post.
Sunderland rallied and tested Howard on occasions, while Borini curled a wonderful effort just wide, but Everton stood firm to climb in to the top four.