Ferdinand makes his point

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa 1

Johnson 22

Newcastle United 1

Ferdinand 58

Attendance: 39,167

LES FERDINAND may be pessimistic about his chances of ever establishing himself in the England team, but he can console himself with the knowledge that his goals continue to keep Newcastle on course at the top of the Premiership.

Granted, this was only the third time in 14 League matches this season that Newcastle failed to win, but even on a day when second-placed Manchester United, with a game in hand, narrowed the gap to six points, a draw was not a bad result against an Aston Villa team whose spirit of adventure nearly saw them home.

Villa adopted an audacious formation revolving around three up front, and the expectations this raised were more than fulfilled in a match that glowed with good football.

For nearly an hour Villa played with an invention normally associated with their opponents, but they paid for their failure to build on their goal midway through the first half. Once Newcastle got back into the match, the balance of power swung, although their manager, Kevin Keegan, acknowledged that "we didn't deserve three points".

Villa's deployment of Tommy Johnson beside the usual front two of Dwight Yorke and Savo Milosevic threw a Newcastle defence which got tighter as the match went on but always looked vulnerable to the ball to the far post. And until his influence faded in the last half-hour, Mark Draper's assurance on the ball and ability to time passes to maximum effect made him the dominant figure in midfield.

Newcastle did not help themselves by conceding a lot of possession, a crime of which even Peter Beardsley was guilty, and until he struck just before the hour, Ferdinand was a largely isolated figure. Keith Gillespie had a more productive afternoon on the right than David Ginola did on the left, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of the match was the way Villa, nominally without wingers, made better use of width than their opponents.

The onus was on Villa's two full-backs, Alan Wright and Gary Charles, to overlap, but their readiness to do so set a pattern from the outset. Johnson and Milosevic had gone close with headers from crosses by Charles when, in the 22nd minute, Villa took the lead. This time it was Draper who supplied from the right, picking out Johnson in space on the edge of the six-yard box. His header cannoned against the inside of the post and in.

Newcastle's only chance of the first half was a shot by Ferdinand that he did not quite get hold of after Beardsley had stunned a pass to him from Gillespie's cross. And although Keegan attempted to bring solidity to his team by replacing Steve Watson with Lee Clark at half-time, Villa should have made their superiority count.

Newcastle, however, equalised in the 58th minute, with the kind of route one goal they are not supposed to score but which is perfectly tailored to Ferdinand's strengths. It could not have been simpler: Shaka Hislop's long clearance, Ferdinand's chase, the thunderous shot past Mark Bosnich. A twisted ankle later required Ferdinand to leave the field on a stretcher, but he reappeared almost immediately, and Keegan confirmed afterwards that the injury was not serious.

Both sides came close to winning it late on: Newcastle when Warren Barton had a shot that Bosnich saved superbly; Villa when Charles crossed and neither Yorke nor Ian Taylor could get a touch. But as Keegan said, "not many people will have gone home disappointed".