Marouane Fellaini again proved the difference for Everton as he scored and provided a magnificent assist in a 2-1 comeback win at home to Sunderland.
The Belgium star has been Everton’s best player for two seasons now and he again bailed them out of trouble, firing home a low drive before setting up Nikica Jelavic with an impudent backheel in a late three-minute spell.
Adam Johnson’s maiden goal for Sunderland had given the visitors a shock 1-0 lead, his side’s first bona-fide goal in 444 minutes of football, with their last strike an own-goal by Newcastle’s Demba Ba.
The result keeps Everton fourth, while Sunderland lie just four points clear of the relegation zone, without a win since September 29.
High-flying Everton had drawn their previous four matches and it looked for much of the game that they would be condemned to a second defeat of the season.
They dominated possession from start to finish, but Sunderland repeatedly took them to task on the break and had the better chances in the first half.
While the hosts were regularly getting the ball in the box, the only real save Simon Mignolet made was from a long-range Phil Neville effort late in the half; otherwise the likes of Carlos Cuellar, John O’Shea and Danny Rose ensured that Fellaini, Jelavic and Kevin Mirallas – who suffered an injury that cut his match shot on half an hour – struggled to get a sight of goal.
Indeed, Sunderland could have racked up a comfortable lead by the break as Tim Howard made a fantastic save from Stephane Sessegnon, while Steven Fletcher put a low finish inches wide before Jack Colback fired weakly at Howard when put clean through.
They were happy enough to have the one-goal lead though, which came after Jelavic’s headed clearance from a corner landed to Craig Gardner – the right-back lofted a straight, high ball back into the box, and with Everton failing to step up properly, Johnson rifled the ball past Howard.
It was the last kick of the half but Everton were not overly discouraged, starting the second like a team possessed.
But they were finding Sunderland’s resilience difficult to break, as a trio of John Heitinga headers somehow failed to level proceedings, the first blocked by Cuellar, the second by Johnson on the line and the third put wide from a great position.
With time running out it seemed like Sunderland would hang on – but with less than a quarter of an hour left, Fellaini struck.
The lanky Belgian had no right to score from the edge of the box when faced with a wall of red-and-white, but his deft first touch gave him half a yard of space to fire a low drive through a sea of bodies, compatriot Mignolet unsighted as it fizzed inside the left-hand post.
Three minutes later, Fellaini turned provider as – with his back to goal and men behind him – he deftly backheeled a marvellous through-ball that put Jelavic through, the Croatia striker needing just one touch to flick a crisp finish inside the far post.
In a jiffy Sunderland had gone from backs-to-the-wall to kitchen-sink as they threw everything at the hosts, who were happy to take their turn to soak up the pressure.
The best chance fell to Cuellar, whose flying volley surely would have netted but for Gardner’s intervention, his team-mate in the way as the goal-bound finish left the Spaniard’s boot.
But Everton were relatively comfortable, closing out five minutes of injury-time to seal their first win since the end of September, when they beat Southampton.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Marouane Fellaini (Everton): The Belgium midfielder is rapidly approaching the status of ‘ringer’ as he often looks a man among boys when dominating opposition defences. It took him around 70 minutes to purr into action today, but he made the difference with a fine goal and even better assist.
Everton: Howard 7, Coleman 6, Baines 7, Heitinga 6, Jagielka 7, Mirallas 6, Pienaar 6, Osman 6, Neville 6, Fellaini 8, Jelavic 7. Subs: Naismith 7, Hitzlsperger 6, Vellios 6
Sunderland: Mignolet 7, Gardner 6, Rose 7, Cuellar 7, O'Shea 6, Larsson 6, Colback 6, McClean 6, Johnson 7, Sessegnon 7, Fletcher 6. Subs: Wickham NA, Vaughan 6, Saha 6