Somewhere between the two adages of "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again" and "the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result" lies Gerard Deulofeu.
The mercurial Spaniard's telling contribution to this match which ended in the decisive own goal 15 minutes from time was not his first attempt to skin Sunderland's left back Marcos Alonso down the outside on the right flank but it was his most productive. It helped Everton to a Premier League-record seventh successive victory that prolongs an astonishing run of form that has vaulted them back into the top four at a timely juncture in the season.
Seeing only the last few minutes, Deulofeu had largely been a spectator in the Blues' swashbuckling destruction of Arsenal last Sunday but he benefited from Roberto Martinez's continued squad rotation policy with a place in the line-up at the expense of Kevin Mirallas, the only change from that starting XI. He rewarded his manager's faith by asserting himself as a regular thorn in Alonso's side and offering the most likely source of a goal from what was a strangely subdued performance, particularly in light of the win over Arsenal.
Indeed, Everton fell some way short of the kind of display the travelling Evertonians had expected given what was at stake from a potentially tricky fixture. They seemed to lack intensity and drive for much of the contest but, crucially, never looked like losing it which left you with the feeling that they just needed to score to fulfil the fears of a nervous home crowd. That the decider was another own goal – the first time in Everton's history that the opposition have contributed a goal to the Blues' side of the scoresheet in three straight games – that masked a poor overall performance didn't matter a jot – Martinez's side picked up another three priceless points with a win that may have doomed the largely toothless Black Cats to the Championship..
The early signs had been promising enough. Deulofeu raced into oceans of space down the left channel after eight minutes but he dallied rather than drive on goal and by the time three Sunderland defenders had got back between him and Mannone, he could only shoot tamely at the goalkeeper. Lukaku then similarly failed to really test Mannone with a low shot from distance a minute later but Everton's best chance of the first half opened up for Naismith after 14 minutes. The Scot collected Baines's pass and rolled Wes Brown superbly but then smashed his shot over the bar with the target yawning in front of him.
At the other end, a word class piece of defending by John Stones would ensure that the two teams went into the half-time interval on level terms. Leighton Baines sold Tim Howard dangerously short with an attempted backpass that was seized upon by Fabio Borini who smartly rounded the goalkeeper and fired an accurate shot from the angle that would have found its mark had Stones not anticipated it and blocked it by the near post.
Having witnessed Everton move into another gear at Craven Cottage a fortnight ago, the visiting fans were no doubt banking on a more focused and purposeful start to the second half but Martinez's men remained fairly pedestrian in their approach. There was almost nothing in the way of the clever triangles and interchanges down the flanks involving the likes of Baines and Leon Osman or Seamus Coleman and Deulofeu, just the occasional drive towards the opposition defence by Deulofeu.
Nevertheless, substitute Ross Barkley forced a good save from Vito Mannone as he tried to side-foot Romelu Lukaku's cross in at the far post and the Sunderland keeper was almost embarrassed by Naismith as he charged out of his box to head a loose ball but could only give it straight to the striker but he couldn't hook it into the empty net from distance, the Scot's effort dropping a couple of yards wide.
With the exception of an impressive jink to the byline where he slid the ball agonisingly across the face of Vito Mannone's goal with an hour gone Deulofeu hadn't been able to carve out a killer final ball. He remained a willing outlet, though, and after Everton had survived a scare at one end where Baines had to head away from his goal line and Ki Sung-Yeung had glanced wide at the back post, he burst once more to the byline and attempted a cutback that prompted Wes Brown to unwittingly divert the ball into his own goal with his chest.
That probably should have been the catalyst for the Blues to take the game by the scruff of the neck and kill Sunderland off but in stark contrast to the authoritive way in which Martinez's side have been finishing matches in recent weeks, they would grind their way through a nervy last quarter of an hour as Sunderland tried in vain to get back on level terms.
With the Blues seeming to abandon their much-vaunted possession game in favour of uncharacteristic long balls from the back, sloppy distribution in forward areas and a series of silly fouls in dangerous areas in front of their area, Gus Poyet's beleaguered Black Cats would see more of the ball in the closing stages than was comfortable. Thankfully, though, they weren't able to do a lot with it.
Howard made a couple of low saves from Alonso and Wickham and was relieved to see Borini's whipped 25-yard effort swing a couple of feet wide as he sprang across his goal at full stretch but there would be no sustained assault from the home side as their supporters trickled away in resignation as the minutes ticked down.
So, not an impressive display from Everton by any means and one perhaps betraying some of the weight of expectation that is building the more possible a top-four finish becomes. Getting the three points was absolutely paramount, though, allowing the Blues to take three more points into two consecutive home games in the space of a week.
Still no Phil Jagielka for Everton but Gerard Deulofeu was given a starting place, with Aiden McGeady, Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley starting the game against Sunderland on the bench, where Tony Hibbert and Antolin Alcaraz have also featured for a number of matches now, but have not been called upon. We should not forget either, that five other first-team players are still out injured...
Sunderland kicked off and it was scrappy for a few minutes, Coleman getting fouled, plenty of turnovers as the contest developed a little slowly, Coleman overlapping and Lukaku deemed to have headed wide. McCarthy pushed Ki, allowing Borini to turn and shoot following a free-kick.
Sunderland won the first corner, from which Deulofeu broke but decided to do it all himself and ran into a cul-de-sac. Lukaku then had a shot at Mannone. Everton created a trendous chance, Baines playing in Naismiith well, the Scot turning superbly to create space and them hammering the ball past Manonne and over the Sunderland goal, when it looked easier to burst the net!
Osman won Everton's first corner with a deflected shot, then Baines was blocked by Johnson, who became the first booking of the match, Baines's free-kick outswinging a little too much. Deulofeu was the next to be fouled, his low free-kick unimpressive.
Everton were passing the ball well and getting it forward but it wasn't really rolling for them, as moves kept breaking down. Baines was penalised wide on the Everton left, but Johnson's free-kick passed through harmlessly. At the other end, Lukaku won a corner off O'Shea but again Deulofeu's delivery was poor, his second was better... then he won a free-kick wide left that Baines curled in but Deulofeu's touch returning the clearance was poor.
With Everton caught a little in defence, Borini got around Howard and looked to finish but there was John Stones, perfectly positioned to block the certain goal behind, for a worrying escape. At the other end, Lukaku scuffed a shot that was deflected wide but Baines's corner at least caused some concern.
Everton's play was impressive at times, with Barry playing masterfully in midfield, and some good interplay won Osman a free-kick off Colback but Baines played the set-piece poorly into the wall. Everton were showing some rare vulnerabilities at the back, requiring some last-ditch defending, especially a superb block by McCarthy to deny Johnson.
A nice move down the Everton right saw a great cross delivered in by McCarthy but Naismith didn't get enough behind his glanced header that took the ball away from Osman, following up. Not a great first half for the Blues.
Sunderland put some decent effort in after the break, forcing Everton onto the back foot a little until a good move gave Deulofeu the chance for a few stepovers and a low cross that Mannone pounced on. At the other end, Coleman was nutmegged and then booked as Everton survived the threat, Bardsley getting booked after a bad challenge on Naismith. That led to another lively move involving Deulofeu that came to nought.
A Sunderland corner caused absolute havoc and Baines did very well to clear a ball that had Everton at sixes and sevens as Osman was replaced by Barkley. Another superb Johnson corner was headed away by McCarthy and another viscous ball in to the far post almost caught Everton out again.
Another fantastic piece of work by Deulofeu, his low shot skidding past the far post when a pullback to Naismith would have been a certain goal as the pace of the game became electric. Naismith anticipated a mistake by Mannone who headed the ball into his path but the finish was poor as Naismith hooked the ball wide of the gaping goal.
Some better football from Everton saw Lukaku cross and Barkley had a lot to do just to reach the fast high cross, forcing Mannone to save at the near post as neither side was controling the play in a game that had signs of going either way, with a Baines corner headed wide. Everton tried the slow and measured build-up, Barkley firing one just wide to end the move.
Deulofeu again went on his trade-mark stepover run and this time it produced a result, the most fortuitous of own-goal, the ball clipping off Wes Brown and past Mannone into the Sunderland net,. The breakthrough Everton so desired, the cruelest luck for Sunderland.
McGeady replaced Deulofeu as Sunderland pushed hard, Ki forcing a save off Howard, then blasting a difficult one over the Everton bar as the Blues chorus resounded around the Stadium of Light. Wickham was next to put Howard to the test with a low bobbling shot. Then Borini flashed one wide across Howard's far post as the Blues struggled to hold on to the ball or deny the home side a final desperate flourish.
Larsson. bizarrely booked for taking a free-kick too soon, and Distin was booked for a barge as the Stadium of Light, bathed in sunshine, emptied out, Johnson's set-piece effort straight into Howard's arms.
A vital if somewhat unconvincing win for the Blues... seven in a row for Martinez, in his first season... Everton up into the Champions League places, in his first season. Fantastic stuff from Roberto Martinez!
Everton can take another tantalising step towards Champions League qualification this weekend as they travel to the Stadium Light knowing that a seventh consecutive League victory would not only set a club record for the Premier League era but also move them above Arsenal into that coveted fourth spot.
The Blues' hopes of breaking into that long-elusive elite club are also truly in their own hands now following Manchester United's exit from this season's Champions League quarter finals – had they surprised everyone by winning the competition, the Red Devils would have qualified for next season as holders and taken the spot from the team that finishes fourth.
The opponents standing between Roberto Martinez's men and another win are Sunderland who, as they did when the teams last met on Boxing Day, will start the day bottom of the table. Then, Everton were just two games from going an entire year without being beaten on home soil, but an early red card for Tim Howard, a goal for the Black Cats from the resulting penalty and a stubborn defensive stand earned a stunning win for Sunderland. Proof, if it were needed, that no match in England's top flight is ever routine or easy.
Martinez will approach this game from that perspective. Gus Poyet's side have sunk to the foot of the table on the back of four straight defeats and looked doomed as they were thrashed 5-1 by Tottenham on Monday night, but while they have games in hand over their rivals and any hope of survival, their fans hope they will be fighting tooth and nail.
Four goals scored and 17 conceded since they beat Newcastle at the start of February illustrate how poor they have been in recent weeks, though, and it's clear that if the Blues can perform like they did in the second half at Fulham or in Sunday's transcendent win over Arsenal then another three points will be in the offing. Even though they've struggled to rack up goals recenrly, the Wearsiders have the talent in their ranks to score when they're motivated but they will struggle again if Everton's defensive form of late continues.
There will at least be continuity on that front as Phil Jagielka is not expected to return to first-team action for another 10 days. Barring any late injury problems, that will mean John Stones and Sylvain Distin continuining a partnership that has been in place for the duration of the current winning streak between Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman.
Both fullbacks were given license to push forward in the latter half of the Fulham game, with Gareth Barry and James McCarthy dropping back and the centre backs splitting to the sides offering a solid defensive setup behind a dangerouns attacking unit. Martinez may look to re-use that strategy at times if it looks as though Sunderland are being well contained.
In the attacking midfield areas, it is again the choice between the myriad options at the manager's disposal. Leon Osman is a doubt after picking up a gash to the eye on Sunday and could be rested, with Ross Barkley and Steven Naismith doing more than enough against the Gunners to warrant inclusion again this time round. Martinez has shown a desire to rotate in this area of the line-up, though, and given Deulofeu's exploits the last time the Blues were in the northeast or Aiden McGeady's contribution at Craven Cottage, it wouldn't be surprising to either of that duo start.
With two home games to follow, Everton have a huge opportunity to put another nine points on the board before the potentially tricky trip to Southampton later in the month. Arsenal are on FA Cup semi final duty this weekend ahead of their hone clash with West Ham in the League on Tuesday but win at Sunderland and then beat Crystal Palace on Wednesday and the Blues can take ownership of fourth place. They just have to maintain the focus, the intensity and the discipline that they have shown in increasing amounts over the past six games.
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* Everton deducted 6 points for PSR breachView full table