Everton under-23s extended their lead at the top of the Premier League 2 at the expense of a battling Sunderland on Sunday.
In a game of few chances, Harry Charsley scored the game’s only goal on 27 minutes when he raced clear of the Black Cats backline.
Sunderland responded but rarely gained a clear sight of goal as the Toffees proved to be a sticky opponent at Eppleton Colliery Welfare.
Joel Asoro was denied by strong hands before Ethan Robson saw his thunderous free-kick turned behind as the Black Cats rallied late on.
Everton, though, held out to move five points clear.
With six points separating the two sides ahead of kick-off, Andy Welsh named a strong starting XI which included Elliot Embleton, Michael Ledger, (Ethan) Robson, Josh Maja and Asoro – less than 24 hours after they featured in Sunderland’s Emirates FA Cup squad against Burnley.
Denver Hume was named among the substitutes for the first time this season following his return from a long-term injury.
Vying to close the gap on the league-leaders, Andrew Nelson optimised the real grit and determination Sunderland needed to show as he clattered into Antonee Robinson with just three minutes played.
It was an early scene setter and a bench mark that highlighted the Black Cats’ need to win their individual battles in what was always going to be a tight contest.
With chances at a premium, Calum Dyson squandered a fine chance as he powered his free header over the bar on 13 minutes before Callum Connolly later stung the gloves of Max Stryjek with an arrowed strike from range.
Sunderland held their own for the best part though, until the 27th minute saw Charsley race clear of the Black Cats’ rear guard and confidently slotted past Stryjek.
It was a slender, yet deserved, lead that the Toffees held, Asoro moved out to the right flank in an attempt to shake things up for the Black Cats as they hunted for an equaliser.
And that chance almost presented itself to Sunderland on 43 minutes, Asoro wriggled clear of two Everton bodies inside the area but as the crowd rose for the expectant net ripple, the Swede took an extra touch and the chance went amiss.
The Toffees picked up where they left off after the break, Stryjek was once again called into action to stop Gethin Jones’ bullet header before Kieran Dowell’s attempt from range had the Pole scampering across his goal-mouth.
Sunderland battled back and were within a whisker of levelling as Nelson’s thunderous attempt from range whistled inches, if that, over the bar.
It was scrappy and a game which lacked any real quality but Nelson’s dogged determination carved out a glorious chance for Asoro to get in behind the Toffee’s defence.
The Swede let the ball run across him and while he hooked his shot goal-bound, the Everton stopper raced off his time to make a good stop.
Welsh shook things up with the introduction of Carl Lawson for Maja on 76 minutes and the Black Cats continued to sink their claws in but continued to be frustrated by their lack of cutting edge in the final third.
Everton extent their lead at the top.
Sunderland: Stryjek, J Robson, Casey (Hume, 45), Ledger, T Robson, Nelson, Embleton, E Robson, Molyneux, Maja (Lawson, 76), Asoro
Unused subs: Talbot, Wright, Blinco
Everton: Hevelt, Kenny, Robinson, Baningime (Courtney Duffus, 84), Browning, Pennington (Feeney, 45), Jones, Connelly, Dyson, Dowell, Charsley
Unused subs: Hunt, Henen, Evans