Newcastle U (1) vs Aston Villa (1) – Villa Squander a Win in Injury Time

As Villa Manager Dean Smith candidly summarized after, “It was an ugly game with not many completed passes and not many clear-cut chances.”  Most Villa fans, like Smith, would be inclined to dwell on the negatives: Watkins performing at less than a stellar level (and showing frustration), Mings being on the receiving end of a muscular tussle with Joelinton, Ramsey showing a loss of confidence, Traoré crashing into an immovable object (and having to leave the game), and the Villa relinquishing the lead (and a shutout) in injury time.

Of course, we should not have been surprised.  Even given the freefall the Magpies have been in of late, how could we have expected to come away from St. James Park with a win?  Our last win there took three red cards to Newcastle players for the Villans to prevail in 2005.  Since then, Villa had come away with 5 draws and 6 losses in Premier League fixtures.  It should surprise nobody that 1-1 was the most frequent result.  It is one thing to beat a team desperately fighting for its Premier League survival.  It is another to beat history!

Still, there were some positives.  Those lost two points actually made no difference to the Villa’s position in the table (still 9th).  If the claret and blue prevail over an inconsistent Spurs side next Sunday, all will be forgiven, and this game will fade into something close to antiquity.

Many of the positives are best appreciated by comparing with the Magpies’ plight.  Their string of injuries upfront, and at the backline, contrasts with the Villa’s relative stability and prospect of early strengthening.  While the hosts are still in a precarious ownership situation, the Villa appear very solid with a commitment, and capacity, to keep adding quality to the squad.  If Newcastle survive, it will not be with confidence of building for the future.  Villa, as agreed by most analysts, have a foundation to build for a future at the highest level.

These thoughts were not on fans’ minds at the kickoff taking place on a cold, dank, Friday evening alongside the North Sea.  More likely, it was anticipation that the hosts would be uncompromising and committed to do whatever was necessary to make a game of it.  Their manager, Steve Bruce, who wears a broken nose with pride has built a team much in his own image and is able to garner some advantage from that.

Typical was Jonjo Shelvey introducing himself to Jacob Ramsey by unceremoniously bringing the youngster down, presumably to make sure he knew what to expect.  Lascelles was equally robust as he challenged Ollie Watkins for each aerial ball.  While these two Magpies had a significant size advantage over their foes, it was surprising to see Joelinton take a physical approach against Tyrone Mings.  It should not have been, since the Brazilian tips the scales over the 6’ 5” Mings, despite looking up 4”.  These mini tussles continued to influence the game, mostly to Villa’s disadvantage.

The next early in the game observation was the difficulty both teams had in stringing passes together, especially close to their opponent’s goal.  When Villa’s normally reliable John McGinn had plenty of time to curl an effort from just outside the penalty area, it was surprisingly high and wide.  The players themselves seemed to recognize the lack of crispness but seemed incapable of correcting.

After dominating the early possession, Villa got a scare when an optimistic clearance down the right wing saw Joelinton shrug-off Mings and bear down towards the Villa goal from the right.  Ezri Konsa had much yardage to make up but he had the angle.  Just as the Magpies’ striker was setting to shoot Konsa’s perfectly timed slide took the ball, and then the player, out of contention.  Brilliant technique.

The Newcastle equivalent two minutes later was by Paul Dummett on Bertrand Traoré, only this was ugly.  As the Villa winger tried to round the redoubtable fullback, he was bodied towards the goal line effectively.  As the winger was heading off the field with no space to cross or control, Dummett applied a gratuitous extra shove, presumably well aware that a few yards away there were two perimeter advertising hoardings.  Traore hurdled the first but then was immediately confronted by the second that he clattered into.  Without the bulk, or protective equipment, to prevent injury Traore collapsed in a pained heap grasping his side.  If he did not have broken ribs, then he certainly had the bruised kind.

Not only did Dummett not get punished, but the Villa had to play a man short while the injured player was tended to and then, replaced by El Ghazi.  This passage of play only added to Villa’s difficulty settling into the game.  While Trezeguet was able to switch to his preferred right wing, the loss of Traore as an attacking threat was missed.

Still, it was Trezeguet who actually put Villa’s first shot on target.  He took on two defenders as he cut-in from the right wing and, with no claret and blue shirt open, he blasted a shot over Dubravka’s head forcing the keeper into a smart save.  That was in the 28th minute and not much else of note occurred before halftime and the goalies were glad to go inside to get warm.

There did seem to be more intent at the start of the second half, certainly from the Villans.  When Targett got a freekick, courtesy of Krafth hacking down El Ghazi, the Villa’s ever-improving fullback engineered enough curve and speed that Konsa was able to meet the flight of the ball ahead of his marker around the penalty spot.  Dubravka looked anxiously as the header flew just wide of his right post.

Then Trezeguet showed himself again as a useful player, chasing a long ball down the right and immediately pulling it back for El Ghazi to put all of his significant power into the shot.  Ciaran Clark managed to block with great anticipation and technique.

Approaching the 60-minute mark, Smith decided that this was not Ramsey’s finest hour, and he brought the youngster off.  Whether it was the early clash with Shelvey or the weight of St. James Park Stadium, it was going to be a game he would rather forget.  In contrast, to the sad demeanor of Ramsey, Sanson was definitely excited to be back in play. 

How that change affected other Villans on the field, is impossible to assess, but there was a definite uptick in their play.  First, Watkins was able to gain possession deep in the Newcastle half (a rare occurrence up to this point).  Encouraged, he attempted to dribble from the right wing into the penalty area, but that came to an abrupt end.  At least he tried.

Then Mings fouled Joelinton to make sure he did not get too far into the Villa half.  Just as quickly Mings balanced the books by making sure to head clear Shelvey’s freekick.  When Newcastle again conjured up an offensive threat, it was Konsa who showed great poise and skill to block Ryan Fraser’s progress and then pirouette to separate the Magpie from the ball.

The game was suddenly full of surprises.  A hopeful cross by Newcastle induced Mings to get his head on a ball that was just too high, even for him.  Matt Targett was understandably distracted by this Baryshnikov-like leap and the fullback took his eye off the ball.  When Mings failed to get even a touch, the ball continued onto the top of Targett’s head and rebounded in an arc that would have ended in the back of the net if not for Martinez making his best save of the game, coming down from his leap with the ball solidly held by two hands – an excellent photo-opportunity.

Perhaps this little flood of excitement distracted Dean Smith because he went to his bench to bring on Barkley for Trezeguet.  The Turkish winger had done nothing to suggest he needed to be rested though, certainly, this seemed like a game where Barkley’s mojo might be found.  The Magpies are neither the fastest or the most skilled team in the Premier League and Villa would benefit from what Ross has shown, if too infrequently.  Why it was a surprise was that Smith had already used up his other two subs and Barkley’s insertion in the 65th minute meant that for the next 25 minutes or so, they were driving without a spare tire. As it was, a giant clash between Mings and Targett both going for the same header later in the game could have left the team two players short.  Fortunately, they both recovered.

Within a couple of minutes on the field of dreams, the Chelsea loanee found himself in a position to prove his value.  Just outside the Newcastle penalty area receiving a pass from Targett, the options were plentiful, except he lost possession and the Magpies broke up field.   One might have expected the well-rested substitute to race back and impose himself to regain possession.  In fact, not only did he fail to engage, but he also managed to lose his footing and fall.  Fortunately, the Villa defense repelled the attack and Barkley was there to gather the clearance outside the area and run with the ball for ten yards or so.  The scenario looked promising as Watkins had space on the right to break clear down the wing, only for Ross to get dispossessed from behind by a sliding Hayden who jumped up and passed out to Ryan Fraser.

With the Magpies now attacking, McGinn, Luiz, and Sanson had instantly reversed their momentum whilst Barkley seemed to be ruminating on what had happened and not going anywhere quickly.  Fraser, meanwhile, cut inside and took a powerful shot aimed toward Martinez’ left.  Fortunately, Konsa was able to deflect the shot behind for a corner with his noggin.  From that corner, Jamaal Lascelles was able to get a head to the ball, but it was weak and wide.

From the goal kick the ball bounced around and Luiz pushed it towards Barkley in the center circle, but Ross let the ball run ahead too far, allowing Hayden to, once more, intercept and for the Magpies to again take off towards the Villa goal.  This was almost catastrophic as Joelinton was fed a pass with an opening to shoot.  With only Martinez to beat, he must have lost his nerve, deciding to square a pass where McGinn could put a foot in the way before it reached another Magpie.  That was not the end of the danger.  Willock picked up the loose ball and, but for Sanson forcing him wide and over the goal line, would have also had an excellent opportunity.

The next time Barkley was in possession he hit a perfect pass down the left wing for El Ghazi reminding everyone of his ability.  That was followed by a couple of useful headers in heavy traffic that paved the way for a Sanson cross that was headed out.  Notable in contrast to Barkley, was that Sanson raced to challenge Fraser who was running clear, albeit illegally (and getting a yellow card for his troubles).  Still, any immediate danger was snuffed out for little cost as the Villa cleared easily.

On the next Magpie break, it was Mings’ turn to stop an attack unlawfully as he took two swipes of Joelinton before the striker went down, and he also received a yellow card.  That presented the opportunity for Steve Bruce to bring on Jacob Murphy for Fraser.  A significant change, as it turned out.

This was also, the time to see the best and saddest of Ross Barkley.  Shelvey’s poor freekick, went straight towards Emi Martinez who gladly gathered and threw to Matt Targett running up on the left.  Targett immediately dispatched to Barkley who had found space ahead of him on the left wing.  Ross, slipped a pass between two defenders to El Ghazi who had come over and who returned the favor as Ross cut inside.  This gave Barkley enough time and space to eye Watkins just outside the 6-yard box on the right and he curved a perfect pass on a platter for Ollie.  Dummett knew enough not to challenge and have Watkins slip around him.  Instead, he waited for the Villa striker to make the first move.

As soon as Watkins saw El Ghazi break, he pulled the ball onto his own left foot and arced a ball intended for the Dutch winger’s head at the far post, only it was too high, even with an acrobatic leap.  Nice move, and an improvement.

Even better was Sanson charging down an attempted clearance by Krafth, then saving the ball from crossing the touchline before working his way down the wing and finding El Ghazi open inside.  El Ghazi sprayed the ball over to McGinn on his right.  The Scot cut inside and eyed Barkley to the left of Krafth.  He knew that he could put enough curve on the cross that neither Krafth, nor any other defender, would be able to intercept.  What he could not do was ensure that Barkley kept onside.  Ross failed to note that just before the pass, the line moved up a yard and left him offside.  That Barkley attempted to go around Krafth on the outside and shoot and failed to get the ball on goal only added insult to injury.  There was just about exactly 80 minutes on the clock and, at least, things were heating up.

Dubravka’s kick went almost directly into touch for a Villa throw and another Barkley moment ensued.  Targett threw the ball to the Chelsea loanee who decided to hit the ball on the volley to either Mings or to Konsa.  It went nowhere near either, but it did go directly to the new sub, Jacob Murphy who evidently anticipated what Barkley was planning to do.  This time Barkley did pursue, and he almost clumsily ran into the grateful recipient.  With Barkley regaining his balance Murphy took off with the ball in the opposite direction towards the left.  Ross, again, decided to stay where he was.  A give and go with Dummett, saw Murphy, receive the pass inside the penalty area, turn and put Luiz on his back and Konsa stretching as the Magpie aimed his shot at Martinez’ top left corner only for it to come right back off the bar.  Joelinton gathered the rebound and curved a tempting cross to the edge of the 6-yard box, only for Martinez to rush off his line and pluck just before another Magpie got his head on it.

The game was animated leading Mings to almost take himself and Targett out of the game with an aerial clash.  Then, some sharp play by Luiz and McGinn saw the Scot get a chance to lob a bouncing ball over Dummett for Watkins to run onto and blast a low shot from a tight angle that Dubravka did well to block.

Then it was the Magpies turn to take advantage of a little confusion among the Villa backline and Murphy to let another shot go only for Konsa to block it.  Konsa had the opportunity to clear the ball out of touch for safety but decided instead to coax a pass down the right wing.  His instinct was good, as it was McGinn who managed to come away with possession.  John cut inside and looked up and, sure enough, Matt Targett was true to his name and racing up the left flank open.  The pass was perfect as was the control and Targett did not even slow until he had found Sanson running towards him to his right.  The French star immediately returned the favor laying the ball to a spot level with the penalty area and a yard inside the touchline.

Targett looked up and saw Watkins making an excellent run, angled towards the near post.  The curving cross was on the money and the striker just had to lean forward to get enough contact to redirect on goal.  Even the best deflection would likely not have beaten the goalie, but Watkins got the slightest skim and the ball barely changed direction until it hit the knee of Ciaran Clark shadowing Watkins a yard behind.  The effect was miraculous as the ball flew with increased velocity towards the goalie’s top right corner.  Meanwhile, Dubravka was leaning to his left where the ball had been going while it rebounded off the bar and into the net.  Clark and the rest of the Magpies looked devastated.  An own goal in the 85th minute.  Newcastle 0, Aston Villa 1.

Shortly thereafter, Steve Bruce brought on Andy Carroll for his goalscoring ability but, instead, it was a remarkable tackle that he made which was his major contribution.  That came in a period of end-to-end action with the Villa more intent on adding to their lead than protecting it.  El Ghazi had a couple of opportunities to maintain possession.  Instead, he gave the Magpies an unnecessary freekick that allowed Lascelles to join the attack. 

Even after giving the Magpies a golden opportunity that took a great save by Martinez and a desperate clearance by Mings, the Villans continued to throw caution to the wind.  Given enough opportunities, the Magpies were bound to score.  Credit to their captain for leading by example and attacking a cross coming from the left with lots of inswing whip and beating Luiz who thought he was going to clear, before the powerful defender flattened him as he reached the cross.  The ball flew past Martinez who could not raise his hand fast enough to save.  With only seconds left, Newcastle had scored!   Newcastle 1, Aston Villa 1.

No doubt, things would likely have finished differently if the goal had been Watkins’ and not Ciaran Clark’s.  That would have been all the motivation the Villans needed to protect the lead. 

How Villa perform against Spurs this coming weekend depends a lot on the injury status of their stars, Heung-min Son and Jack Grealish.  We will see.  This is definitely a season of surprises.

Newcastle U. (4-3-3): Dubravka, Krafth, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett, Willock, Shelvey, Hayden, Joelinton, Fraser, Gayle

SUBS: Carroll (s 88′), Ritchie, Lewis, Hendrick, Fernandez, Manquillo (s 83′), Murphy (s 79′), Darlow, Longstaff

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Ahmed Elmohamady, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings (captain), Matt Targett, Douglas Luiz, Jacob Ramsey, John McGinn, Bertrand Traoré, Ollie Watkins, Trézéguet

SUBS: Heaton, Cash, Nakamba, Engels, Sanson (s, 59’), Barkley (s 68’), Davis (s 81′), Anwar El Ghazi (s 21’)

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