SLICK Sunderland completed a hat-trick of Premiership victories last night to move into sixth place with a well-deserved win over Everton at the Stadium of Light.

Only the woodwork and an inspired performance by visiting goalkeeper Paul Gerrard kept the score-line respectable as Peter Reid's men dominated for most of an entertaining game.

Everton were made to pay for early goal-area misses as Sunderland gradually found their feet and, inspired by Niall Quinn, never looked back after a superb strike from Scotland B international Alex Rae just before half-time.

After that it was virtually one-way traffic and Kevin Phillips made sure of victory with his seventh strike of the season. He was denied a second hat-trick when shots twice came back off the woodwork, while Quinn also hit a post.

Sunderland were forced to make changes when Scottish international Don Hutchison (hamstring) and full back Chris Makin (thigh) were ruled out, Darren Williams switchingto defence.

Kevin Kilbane returned to the right wing after recovering from an ankle injury and Gavin McCann returned to the starting line-up against his old club after a ten-month injury absence.

The Wearsiders almost got off to a dream start when Quinn cleverly chested down a long ball from Michael Gray and his right foot volley beat Paul Gerrard only to come back off the angle.

Sunderland had a lucky escape in the next minute when Israeli winger Idan Tal, clean through, completely missed his kick near the penalty spot.

There was plenty of early action and the Everton goal had another escape in the eighth minute when McCann had a shot charged down and a fierce follow-up from Julio Arca flew just over the bar.

Gerrard had to make a good save from Kilbane, who chose to try his luck from 25 yards as Sunderland continued to press hard.

But they were almost caught on the break in the 19th minute when Stephen Hughes fed a great ball to Kevin Campbell, but the striker lifted his right foot shot over the bar after getting on the goal side of Jody Craddock.

Then came another dangerous attack by the Merseysiders, but again Tal, given a great chance in the box, lost his footing as he tried to tee the ball up for a shot.

Sunderland hit back with purpose and when Quinn lifted over a centre from the right Phillips out-jumped his marker to have a close-range header saved by Gerrard.

It took a magnificent one-handed save by Gerrard in the 34th minute to keep out a powerful, point-blank header from Quinn after Arca curled in the ball from the left following good work by Phillips.

Sunderland took the lead in the 44th minute when Rae hit a pile-driver into the corner of the net from the edge of the penalty area after getting to a short pass from Kilbane before Phillips after a header on from Quinn.

It was a cracking goal - almost as good as his winner at Charlton nine days earlier - and Phillips almost added a second in the next attack when Gerrard made a great diving save to parry his stinging, right-foot 20-yarder.

Sunderland started the second half where they left off and Quinn blasted a right foot angled shot over the bar after a good knock-on by Phillips.

Sunderland should have increased their lead in the 57th minute after Williams lifted over a centre from the right and Quinn squared the ball across the face of goal, only for Phillips to fail to make proper contact inside the six-yard area - a great chance for the England man.

But Everton squadered a golden opportunity to equalise when substitute Thomas Gravesen meassured a great pass up to Campbell, but he delayed his left-foot shot, which was eventually deflected away for a corner.

The Everton goal had an incredible escape in the 63rd minute when Quinn slipped a great ball through to Phillips, who skipped past the keeper, only to see his shot come back off the upright.

But Phillips claimed his seventh goal of the season in the next minute when Arca mishit a low shot from the edge of the area.

The little striker latched on to it in a flash and fired home from the edge of the six-yard box with the Everton defence looking in vain for an off-side flag.

Phillips came close to a second in the 78th miunute when Gerrard made a great save to turn his shot up against the bar and two minutes later Quinn received a standing ovation as he left the field to be replaced by substitute Stanislav Varga.

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