Lacklustre in the first half at Craven Cottage, Roberto Martinez’s side were inspired by the half-time introduction of Steven Naismith, eventually killing off Fulham with goals from Naismith, Kevin Mirallas and a David Stockdale own goal to move to within four points of Arsene Wenger’s side with a game in hand.
Victory against the north London club will hand Everton the advantage, although they have the more daunting run-in with Manchester United and Manchester City both yet to visit Goodison Park. They will be well aware, however, that if they are to have any chance of overhauling Arsenal, they will have to discover a richer vein of form after labouring against a Fulham team fighting to climb off the foot of the table.
For long periods it appeared as though Felix Magath’s side were capable of recording a second successive home victory that would have moved them to within one place and two points of safety. As it is, they have now played a game more the clubs on the fringes of the bottom and their prospects for survival now appear bleak.
The strength of Everton’s squad eventually told after a scoreless first half with substitutes Naismith and Mirallas proving to be the key figures, also Fulham replacement Ashkan Dejagah did give the home side hope when he cancelled out Stockdale’s own-goal.
Similar resilience will required in the coming the weeks in a contest Martinez expects to go to the wire.
“Mathematically, you have still got seven teams fighting for those four positions so I do think it is going to go right to the end,” said the Everton manager. “You need to gain momentum, find a real momentum in the squad. I would not say it would take a miracle, but football miracles do happen. They really do.
“The challenge against Arsenal is phenomenal.”
While Martinez could allow himself to dream of the Champions League, Magath knows he could start next season in the Championship.
The German, drafted in as Fulham’s third manager of the season last month, insisted his team had shown they were capable of staying up but it would take a remarkable effort to avoid relegation.
“I think it was our best game since I came here,” said the Fulham manager. “We created a lot of chances against one of the best teams in the division. But that is what happens when you don’t create your chances.
“We are very disappointed but I am not planning for the Championship, I am planning how we can win our next games. I know we can still make it and no team was relegated today.”
Magath certainly showed a willingness to gamble, handing a first start to 17-year-old striker Moussa Dembele and the youngster had an outstanding chance to open the scoring with a header immediately before half-time. That was one of a number of opportunities wasted by Fulham and it became clear they would prove costly when Naismith’s introduction in place of the injured Ross Barkley sparked a turn around.
The Scotland international’s powerful shot was deflected against Stockdale, the Fulham keeper, who was unable to get out of the way and diverted the ball into his own net in the 51st minute. Dejagah led the response with a 71st-minute effort after cutting in from the left flank, but home hopes were all but snuffed out when Mirallas collected Naismith’s excellent pass eight minutes later and beat Stockdale.
The winner came three minutes from time when Mirallas set up Naismith’s close-range finish that left the two teams contemplating very different endings to their season.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Stockdale 6; Riether 7, Hangeland 6, Heitinga 6, Riise 6; Kasami 7, Kvist 6 (Woodrow 64, 7), Sidwell 7, Richardson 7 (Dejagah 64, 6); Holtby 8, Dembele 6 (Roberts 82, 6).
EVERTON (4-2-3-1): Howard 8; Coleman 6, Stones 8, Distin 7, Baines 6; Barry 7, McCarthy 6; Deulefeu 6 (Mirallas 68, 7), Osman 6 (McGeady 77, 7), Barkley 5 (Naismith 46, 9); Lukaku 6.
Referee: Anthony Taylor