Newcastle back on top to leave Aston Villa’s Steve Bruce in a bad place

Yoan Gouffran and a Henri Lansbury own goal gave Newcastle a 2-0 win over Aston Villa, who have yet to win in 2017

Newcastle United are back on top of the Championship, a point above Brighton. On a night when a close game was decided by small details, this was the big fact that mattered to Tyneside. Rafael Benítez’s side are getting close to where they can see the finishing line. They are perhaps six victories away from automatic promotion.

For Aston Villa the statistics are rather different. This was a fifth consecutive defeat, their seventh in the last eight in the league and they are six points above third-bottom Wigan. It seems inconceivable that Villa could be relegated two seasons in succession, though Steve Bruce accepts they have to consider the possibility.

“In the situation we are in, of course,” Villa’s manager said to that question. “I’m confident, but we have to deal with it.”

His team’s task will not be helped by a nasty ankle injury sustained by their new £15m signing Scott Hogan. The forward departed on a stretcher and Bruce was dismayed when he discussed it: “It doesn’t look good, the consequences of losing him are huge.” At least Hogan was not taken directly to hospital. He will be scanned in Birmingham on Tuesday morning.

Bruce sounded slightly better than he had looked on the touchline. His team were not poor, and Newcastle’s goalkeeper Karl Darlow was as busy as Sam Johnstone at the other end. But as Bruce said: “The chances we created, we didn’t take.” And in not converting pressure into goals, Villa are vulnerable. They conceded to Yoan Gouffran three minutes before half-time, a scrappy goal that Bruce called “rank bad”.

Then on the hour came a decisive second, this time an own goal from Henri Lansbury which Bruce described as “hideous”. A joyous St James’ Park did not see it that way. For them it was karma, revenge for Lansbury’s role in the two red cards shown to Jonjo Shelvey and Paul Dummett when Lansbury was a Nottingham Forest player in December. When the Tannoy announced the scorer, Newcastle’s fans roared.

The plan had been for the ground to be roaring all night – a new giant banner of Benítez was unfurled on the Gallowgate – because a particular animosity has developed between the two set of fans since Newcastle were relegated on the last day of the 2008-09 season at Villa Park.

But after the initial noise, the volume decreased. The planned intimidation melted as Villa settled into a comfortable rhythm. Mile Jedinak, not Shelvey, was the dominant midfielder. Darlow, not Johnstone, was the anxious keeper.

Although Benítez was able to name Dwight Gayle in his starting XI for the first time in a month, Newcastle’s No9 barely got a touch before limping off in the 33rd minute pointing to his left hamstring.

Before Gouffran’s goal, Newcastle had not produced a shot on target. It was tepid. Darlow had made a vital save after 32 minutes, back-pedalling to tip over a deflected cross from the menacing Jonathan Kodija.

Prior to that, in the sixth minute, Hogan had the first opening. However, from a long Neil Taylor free-kick, he lost his bearings when unmarked six yards out. Despite that he still managed to head the ball goalwards but it was just too far ahead of Birkir Bjarnason at the far post.

Steve Bruce cuts a frustrated figure during the game.
Steve Bruce cuts a frustrated figure during the game. Photograph: Stephenson/JMP/Rex/Shutterstock

As an attacking presence, Newcastle were invisible. Then, from a rush and push, they finally won a corner. It was taken short to Matt Ritchie and flung to the head of Jamaal Lascelles. From there a scramble ensued and after Aleksandar Mitrovic had swung a leg at the ball, it fell to Gouffran who poked it in.

“Every game in the Championship is quite difficult,” Benítez said. “In the first half we were not at the level we were expecting – credit to them.”

Mohamed Diamé had offered little. Then approaching the hour, the Senegal international sprung forward from Newcastle’s midfield and was upended 20 yards from Villa’s goal. That was an example of Diamé’s thrust and Newcastle need it.

Shelvey belted the resulting free-kick around the wall, bringing a diving save from Johnstone, and a corner. When that was cleared another followed.

It was again whipped in by Shelvey and Lascelles met it on the run with a flick of the boot to the near post. Lansbury was stationed there. But the ball hit the post then rebounded off the back of Lansbury’s leg and dribbled over the line. As Bruce said, hideous.

Twenty points separated these clubs on relegation at the end of the 2015-16 season; now it’s 33. Villa are still falling.


Michael Walker at St James' Park

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