Football: Flagging Villa let Lee nail his colours to mast

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Aston Villa 0

Newcastle United 2

RON ATKINSON discounted fatigue in the wake of his team's Uefa Cup heroics as a factor in the outcome at Villa Park, and Peter Beardsley agreed. Those chasing Newcastle in the Premiership might be inclined to a different view.

Exhilarating as Aston Villa's display was during the opening 45 minutes - and their manager considered it as good as they had produced for two years - the Newcastle ascendancy Robert Lee inspired thereafter transparently owed as much to their hosts' tiredness as to a half-time tirade by Kevin Keegan.

It was asking too much for Atkinson's team to sustain such a level of excellence against the leaders barely 40 hours after a sapping 120 minutes plus penalties with Internazionale. In seeking to maximise their earning potential by switching the Inter epic from Tuesday to Thursday for television's benefit, Villa may have made a rod for their own backs.

''We could've had a fortnight off and still not played as well as that,' Atkinson countered, noting that Villa won a League Cup tie at Arsenal two days after visiting Liverpool. Beardsley, meanwhile, argued that Villa 'picked up where they left off' whereas Newcastle, despite two days more to recover from less strenuous European exertions, initially fell below the standards they have set.

While Villa did create a staggering number of chances - double figures by the interval, when Guy Whittingham might have gone in with a hat-trick - none was actually unmissable. But it was a different story from the re-start.

Lee's 25-yard drive soon deceived Nigel Spink, his 11th goal of the season nudging him ahead of Andy Cole. Lee's lead lasted only until the striker rifled the second, but Newcastle's advantage, and a club-record fifth successive away win, proved more secure.

Curiously, Lee's first goal last season was delayed until late March, since when he has outscored Cole 18 to 17. In the words of Terry McDermott, Keegan's deputy, he 'tackles, wins headers, can't stop scoring and is so strong on the ball . . . he reminds me of Kenny Dalglish the way he sticks his backside into people'.

Terry Venables, who must replace the injured David Platt against Romania a week on Wednesday, will surely find room for the Lee posterior. However, even Lee and Cole - whose case for inclusion is equally strong - did not escape their manager's wrath after a first half when, McDermott quipped: 'Stevie Wonder could've seen we played badly'.

Keegan does not, apparently, favour flying crockery, but according to his long-time ally was 'as fired up as I've ever seen him'. His criticism drew the required response, yet the fact that he felt compelled to make it suggests a recognition that Newcastle's last three domestic performances have been below par.

They should worry: Villa are already 13 points adrift. The professionalism of Atkinson would never let him admit it, but last week's events demonstrate that in certain circumstances, TV pounds have a higher currency than Premiership points.

Goals: Lee (66) 0-1; Cole (83) 0-2.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Spink; Barrett, McGrath, Ehiogu, King; Houghton (Staunton, 79), Parker, Townsend, Yorke; Fenton (Lamptey, 73), Whittingham. Substitute not used: Oakes (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Beresford, Howey, Peacock, Hottiger; Fox, Lee, Albert, Sellars; Cole, Beardsley (Kitson, 76). Substitutes not used: Watson, Hooper (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).