Essex 159 (Bopara 46, Parry 3-28, Anderson 3-56) and 89 for 2 (Westley 27*, Lawrence 13*) need another 389 runs to beat Lancashire 319 and 317 for 3 dec (Davies 140*, Vilas 92)
County Championship Round-up: Hampshire's Headingley heroes
ESPNcricinfo recaps day three of the County Championship as Hampshire stun Yorkshire at Headingley.
Alex Davies put a troubled season behind him by posting his maiden first-class century to help Lancashire set Essex 478 to win - or four full sessions to save the game - in a decidedly one-sided opening match of the Specsavers County Championship season.
Essex knocked off 89 of the runs in 38 overs before the close. They lost both openers in the process as Lancashire closed in on their first Championship win in 12 attempts.
The day, though, belonged to Davies. He had been within one run of a century against Kent at Old Trafford almost two years ago, but batted throughout the 94.3 overs of Lancashire's second innings at Chelmsford to finish unbeaten on 140.
Essex were made to pay dearly for dropping the wicketkeeper-rookie opener twice on the second afternoon when he had just 10 and 26. Neil Wagner floored a third chance on the long-leg boundary off Tom Westley, but by then the 22-year-old had 132 to his name.
Davies showed he had all the orthodox shots in the textbook as well as a punishing reverse-sweep, one of which was sent scudding to the boundary off Simon Harmer, another lobbing gently over Wagner standing at point.
A fierce drive off Wagner was so straight it smashed into the stumps at the bowler's end and ricocheted for one of his 21 boundaries. Twice he stepped back to leg and cut Wagner firmly square of the wicket. He took successive fours off Ravi Bopara to bring up the century partnership with Dane Vilas. It was not far off brutal.
Davies had reached his half-century from the penultimate ball of the second day, and went to lunch on the third 97 not out. He pushed his third ball after the interval through midwicket off Harmer to reach three figures from 214 balls with 17 fours.
Davies had to fight back from 11 months out of the game with a knee injury that required an operation during the winter.
He said: "There were a couple of dark moments during that time. But you have to stay positive and have belief in your own ability, belief that you will get back fit, that you will get back playing. It was tough to watch Lancs last season and see people move ahead of me. But I had that belief deep down, the hunger, and that will stand me in good stead.
"Yes, there are days when you think, 'I'm injured' and you get down on yourself. But deep down it's always been there and hopefully there is plenty more to come. But this was really amazing and it's good to get it off my back really. I've had a lot of chances in the past and not quite got over the line. It's just another day, but a really special one at the same time."
Head coach Glen Chapple told Davies during the winter that he would be both No1 wicketkeeper and opening batsman. "I love it," he said. "I want to bat higher, I don't want to be the keeper who bats seven. I want to bat higher because I believe I can. It fits best for the team at the moment that I open the batting, and if it's best for the team it's good for me."
It was a chastening experience for newly-promoted Essex who enjoyed only two moments of success in the field during the day. The first arrived in the seventh over of the day when Aaron Beard took his second wicket of the innings. Liam Livingstone, having helped put on 51 with Davies, tried to force the young bowler through the off-side but only picked out Nick Browne at cover point and departed for 28.
Lancashire's third wicket fell 49 overs later when Jamie Porter took out Vilas's middle stump and precipitated the declaration. In between Davies and Vilas made hay in the sunshine, adding 183 runs and taking the game out of Essex's reach. Vilas reached 92 off 165 balls, with just five fours, and it looked for all the world like he was set fair for a ton.
The Essex openers negotiated seven overs before tea and a further 11 afterwards without undue alarm before Browne carelessly gave his wicket away. He dragged a rank long hop from Stephen Parry straight into Haseeb Hameed's hands halfway back to the boundary at midwicket for 18.
With just 12 runs added, Varun Chopra (29) played across one from Ryan McLaren and turned to see his off stump cartwheeling into the distance. Westley had lives when 10 and 11, dropped by Shivnarine Chanderpaul at short extra cover off McLaren, and then by Livingstone at slip off Parry. But he reached the close on 27 with Dan Lawrence on 13.