Everton crushed a woeful Arsenal side 3-0 at Goodison Park on Sunday to boost their chances of a top four finish and a possible place in next season's Champions League for the first time in nine seasons.
Everton's sixth successive Premier League win based on an outstanding all-round team performance meant that although they stayed in fifth place, one behind Arsenal, they are only a point behind the Gunners with a match in hand in the tight race for fourth spot.
Arsenal have 64 points from 33 matches, Everton 63 from 32, followed by Manchester United (57 from 33) and Tottenham Hotspur (56 from 32) before they play bottom-placed Sunderland at home on Monday.
Goals from Steven Naismith, who followed up a rebound off the legs of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to score after 14 minutes, a superb solo effort from Romelu Lukaku after 34 and a third after 62 when a Kevin Mirallas shot went in off Arsenal's former Everton midfielder Mikel Arteta for an own goal, sent Arsenal crashing to another heavy defeat on Merseyside two months after they lost 5-1 at Liverpool.
Arsenal last failed to play in the Champions League in 1997-98 but on this form their record is under serious threat and the only bright moment in a gloomy afternoon was the re-appearance of Aaron Ramsey as a second half substitute after being out for almost three months injured.
Everton took part in the qualifiers in the 2005-06 season but were eliminated and have never played in the Champions League proper.
On this form Arsenal will need a massive improvement in the closing weeks of the season to stop Everton finishing above them.
They posed little to worry the Everton defence apart from a rasping late shot from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain which Howard tipped on to the bar.
Their gloom was completed with Mathieu Flamini's 10th booking of the season ruling him out of next weekend's FA Cup semifinal against holders Wigan Athletic at Wembley.
Yaya Sanogo had the ball in the net in the dying minutes but even then the luck went against the hapless Gunners as he was ruled offside when he may have been onside.
Meanwhile on Saturday’s late kick-off, Chelsea bounced back from their mini-slump and surged to the top of the Premier League with a 3-0 home victory over Stoke City thanks to goals from Mohamed Salah, Frank Lampard and Willian.
A 32nd minute strike by Salah, making his first start since joining Chelsea in January, and second-half efforts from Lampard, whose initial penalty was saved by Asmir Begovic, and Brazilian Willian saw the Blues move on to 72 points.
Third-placed Real Madrid are still in the hunt, two points behind Barca, after Gareth Bale smashed in a brilliant long-range effort and Asier Illarramendi scored against his former club in a 4-0 win at sixth-placed Real Sociedad on Saturday.
Atletico have 79 points from 32 matches, three more than their tally from last season when they finished third. Barca are second on 78 and Real have 76.
Not since Real and Barca finished tied on 76 points in 2006-07, with Real crowned champions by virtue of a superior head-to-head record, and Sevilla stayed in the hunt down to the wire has there been such a close three-way fight for the title.
Real were without the injured Ronaldo in San Sebastian and it took them until the 45th minute to open the scoring when Illarramendi stabbed in the rebound from a Karim Benzema effort.
Bale, who needed treatment on a gashed knee just before his goal, made it 2-0 in the 67th when he controlled a miscued clearance by Sociedad goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and lashed the ball into the bottom corner.
Centre-back Pepe netted Real’s third in the 85th and substitute Alvaro Morata made it 4-0 two minutes from time.