Magpies lose at struggling Aston Villa
TWO years after their last trip to Aston Villa resulted in a 1-0 defeat that condemned them to the Championship, Newcastle returned to Villa Park to suffer an identical reverse. However, barring a disaster in the remaining six matches of the season, the consequences should be much less calamitous this time around. With a seven-point cushion to the bottom three, the Magpies will surely not be relegated for the second time in three seasons at the end of next month. Aston Villa could still go down, although James Collins' first-half winner has significantly eased the relegation fears that were building for Gerard Houllier's side. Villa's downward trajectory had displayed many of the traits that accompanied Newcastle's dramatic fall from grace two seasons ago "managerial upheaval, supporter discontent, established internationals under-performing" but they look like pulling themselves clear of trouble in the nick of the time. Newcastle deserve considerable credit for accumulating 39 points before the middle of April, but the paucity of yesterday's performance nevertheless provided cause for concern as thoughts begin to turn towards next season. With injuries and suspensions mounting, the Magpies' wafer-thin squad is currently as weak as it has been all campaign. Save for an unexpected flourish in the last five minutes, their attack was particularly under par against Villa, with neither Nile Ranger, who was making his first Premier League start, nor Peter Lovenkrands, who has scored just four league goals all season, troubling Collins and Richard Dunne. Indeed, with only Shefki Kuqi to turn to on the bench, it could be argued that Magpies manager Alan Pardew will have to spend the whole of Andy Carroll's £35m transfer fee on strikers alone if his side are to be genuine European contenders next season. Mind you, for the six members of yesterday's starting side who were also involved on May 24, 2009, even contemplating a tilt at a top-seven finish in the Premier League is proof of significant progress. Steve Harper, Steven Taylor, Jose Enrique, Fabricio Coloccini, Danny Guthrie and Lovenkrands were all involved in that fateful relegation game, and can attest for how far Newcastle have come in the last 24 months. Taylor's inclusion yesterday was something of a surprise, and was part of a wider reshuffle that saw Coloccini pushed into a holding role at the base of midfield in the absence of suspended duo Kevin Nolan and Cheik Tiote. He performed creditably enough without ever entirely convincing, a description that could also be applied to Ranger, who replaced the injured Shola Ameobi. Newcastle's side had a makeshift look throughout, yet they started reasonably brightly and might well have taken the lead 14 minutes in, only for Joey Barton to direct a diving back-post header well over the crossbar after Enrique's driven cross narrowly eluded Lovenkrands. The Magpies then went close again when Ranger directed a tame side-footed effort much too close to Brad Friedel when it might have been better to square the ball to his unmarked strike partner. Given the precarious nature of their league position, it was no surprise to see Villa displaying signs of nerves early on, with passes going astray at regular intervals and little evidence of an understanding between the home side's quartet of attacking England internationals. Had Newcastle held out until half-time, the tension in the second half would have ratcheted up further. As it was, though, the hosts were able to take much of the sting out of the game with a controversial opener in the 24th minute. Barton was penalised for a soft foul on Ashley Young, with the fury of the Newcastle midfielder's reaction to referee Stuart Attwell's decision confirming that he certainly thought the England winger had dived. It looked, on first glance, like he had a case, but what followed next was a setback entirely of the Magpies' own making. Collins was allowed to run untracked across the front of the Newcastle defence, and after Young clipped a free-kick into the box, the Wales international glanced a deft header into the far corner. The goal helped settle the home side's nerves, and Villa twice went close to doubling their lead before the interval. Danny Simpson had to be at his most alert to clear Dunne's goalbound header from a corner, before former Sunderland striker Darren Bent headed ex-Middlesbrough winger Stewart Downing's left-wing cross over the crossbar from no more than four yards out. Bent, who was the victim of a marginal offside decision when he converted Jean Makoun's pass in the final minute of the first half, produced a performance that would have been instantly recognisable to Sunderland fans. Redundant for long periods in terms of link up play, but constantly alert to any pickings in the penalty box. He is the kind of striker Newcastle do not possess at the moment, and the contrast between the two sides' attacking resources was stark. Steve Harper was forced into two fine saves at the start of the second half to deny first Gabriel Agbonlahor and then Ashley Young, and while Villa's forward play was never particularly cohesive, the potential for a potent attacking unit is clearly there. The same cannot really be said of the visitors, yet after being redundant for most of the opening 88 minutes, Friedel suddenly found himself having to produce two excellent late saves to preserve his side's lead. Both came from Lovenkrands, and while the first, a tumbling catch from a header, was routine, the second, a full-stretch stop to claw away the Dane's driven low effort, was a fine piece of goalkeeping from the American.
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