A 1-0 home win against Newcastle was just what the doctor ordered as far as Gerard Houllier and Aston Villa were concerned this weekend. An unspectacular but relatively comfortable win was ideal in my opinion, and a clean sheet will instil confidence into an otherwise nervy backline. Sunday’s win was a strange one as far as performances were concerned with this seasons up to now failure stealing the show in the cases of Stiliyan Petrov and Gabby Agbonlahor. A somewhat dull game over the 90 minutes suited Villa just fine having been involved in some superb end-to-end clashes this season, only to end up on the wrong end, usually down to a late leveller or winner from their opponents. There was no real brilliance on the day from either side, especially the visitors who were hampered by suspensions and injuries, but after a decent start from the Toon, James Collins opener saw the end to much of the away sides threat until the final five minutes.
Gerard Houllier gave a recall to club captain Stiliyan Petrov, replacing Nigel Reo-Coker alongside Jean Makoun in centre midfield. Gabby Agbonlahor kept his place ahead of the likes of Albrighton despite an ineffective showing against Everton while contrasting performances from Kyle Walker (poor) and Luke Young (solid) last time out were enough to see them keep the returning Ciaran Clark from a start.
The first 20 minutes saw a nervy display from Villa bettered only by an even nervier atmosphere inside Villa Park, despite Newcastle being without the likes of Kevin Nolan, Cheikh Tiote and Shola Ameobi. In the former’s absence Joey Barton skippered Pardew’s side but had a game to forget which is always pleasing to see when it comes to the former Man City man.
The captain for the day was the culprit for the first missed opportunity after decent work down the left from the threatening duo of Gutierrez and Enrique saw the latter cross to Barton at the back post. The onrushing midfielder mistimed an unmarked diving header harmlessly over the Villa bar.
Young striker Nile Ranger then saw the defence open up in front of him, collecting a Gutierrez ball after he had slipped. Collins completely abandoned his man to allow the Newcastle man a clean run at goal, only for the full league debutant to fire tamely at Friedel.
Having constantly conceded possession early on, with the misfiring Makoun and Walker unimpressive on the day, Villa took a somewhat undeserved lead. Barton brought down Young, a man who Pardew was keen to point out was the most fouled man in the league (don’t foul him then!), the winger picked himself up and delivered a wicked free-kick which found the diagonal run of James Collins. The defender glanced a terrific header into the corner from range and out of the reach of Steve Harper.
Decent work then saw Downing switch to the left and deliver a fierce cross to the head of Bent who rose early, too early in fact, and could only head over the bar for the hosts.
Just before the whistle it should have been 2-0 when Jean Makoun produced his one moment of class in the whole game to slip through Bent. The striker collected the ball and finished well past Harper with his left only to be ruled offside, though replays later showed the England man to be in line.
Villa started the second half in the ascendancy and looked comfortable with Collins and Dunne in particular, easily dealing with high balls into the Villa half. Barton was dispossessed by the rejuvenated Petrov who found Agbonlahor on the left. The striker raced down on goal and curled a good effort towards the far post, forcing a decent stop from the Newcastle keeper.
Petrov was overshadowing Makoun in the middle and deserves credit after critics, including myself had suggested his time was up at Villa Park. The Bulgarian showed that he still has a vital role to play until the end of this season at least, though it remains to be seen whether his influence will be needed beyond that point.
Referee Stuart Atwell then awarded a goal kick despite Harper clearly making a full stretched stop from a long range Young drive. The home side were a touch unfortunate not to win a penalty when Bent was barged over in the box by Steven ‘I’ve been shot on the goal line’ Taylor, but again the decision didn’t go Villa’s way.
Collins headed another effort at goal from a corner, only to see it blocked in a half completely dominated by the home side though they couldn’t take advantage. This led to a last 5 minute barrage from the otherwise abject Newcastle with Peter Lovenkrands seeing two late efforts well saved by Friedel. The first from a superb Guthrie delivery from deep which the Dane headed too close to the veteran stopper and the second when he bore down on goal on the left, only to see the American save with his legs.
An injury time free-kick was conceded by substitute Cuellar on Coloccini but specialist Ryan Taylor couldn’t convert, dispatching his effort a foot over the bar.
All in all a deserved victory in my opinion, despite a nervy ending. Should have been 2-0 were it not for Bent’s disallowed effort and a commanding defensive performance for the most part, haven’t been able to say that for a while!
Villa Player Ratings
Brad Friedel – 7 – three decent but expected stops gave Villa victory
Kyle Walker – 5 – a successive poor showing may see Clark preferred next time round
James Collins – 7 – started nervy but superb header cooled that
Richard Dunne – 7 – didn’t put a foot wrong and dominated the ineffective threat of Ranger
Luke Young – 7 – another solid display at his less favoured left back spot
Stewart Downing – 7 – bright once again
Jean Makoun – 5 – surrendered possession too often
Stiliyan Petrov – 8 – captain’s display, man of the match in my book having been a harsh critic
Ashley Young – 6 – great assist but delivery otherwise poor
Gabby Agbonlahor – 7 – possibly his liveliest showing of the season, looked a threat
Darren Bent – 6 – worked hard despite isolation at times, unlucky to be ruled offside
Nigel Reo-Coker – 6 – not much time but did OK
Carlos Cuellar – 6 – silly foul late on but otherwise fine
Robert Pires – not time
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