Football: Lee's sucker punch

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Aston Villa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Newcastle United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Lee 66, Cole 83

Attendance: 29,960

IT WAS hardly fair, but you could see it coming a long way off. For half the match, Aston Villa managed to deceive us into underestimating the cost of their exertions less than 48 hours earlier. Then, perhaps inevitably, they blew up. The Premiership leaders shook off their torpor, took the initiative, went ahead after 65 minutes with a sublime sucker-punch by Robert Lee, and wrapped up the result in the 82nd minute when Paul Kitson, having come on as a substitute for Peter Beardsley five minutes earlier, marked his debut by returning Andy Cole's pass with cool judgement and watching with satisfaction as Cole smashed the ball home from close range.

With these goals, Lee and Cole reached a total of 11 apiece for the season to date: just one indication of their outstanding form as individuals and team members. In the absence of the injured David Platt, Lee might expect a starting place in Terry Venables's England squad to face Romania, announced tomorrow, while Cole's continued exclusion from the company would be a disappointment to his many admirers.

Denied any extra time to recover from Thursday night's exertions against Internazionale by Kevin Keegan's refusal of Ron Atkinson's invitation to postpone the match until this afternoon or Monday night, Villa rested Dalian Atkinson and lost Dean Saunders to a hip injury and Kevin Richardson to a tweaked hamstring, while Steve Staunton, who played so outstandingly through the Uefa Cup tie while suffering from flu, sat on the bench. Their replacements were Graham Fenton, Garry Parker, Dwight Yorke and Guy Whittingham.

For Newcastle, who had enjoyed four days of rest since completing the demolition of Royal Antwerp, Keegan was able to select Peter Beardsley, leaving the pounds 2.25m newcomer Kitson among the substitutes.

Whittingham could have put Villa into a secure lead well before half-time. In the first minute he ran on to Ray Houghton's pass and lobbed just over the bar; later he clubbed an Andy Townsend pass wide, met Ray Houghton's smart diagonal ball with a turning volley which brought a good catch from Pavel Srnicek, and then produced a bicycle-kick which flew a few feet wide.

With half-time approaching, Villa's momentum seemed irresistible while Newcastle were spluttering and faltering. Cole had failed to make the most of a rebound from Philippe Albert's powerful shot, and Scott Sellars had clipped the bar with a shot from Ruel Fox's cunningly delayed cross. Then, three minutes before the break, there came a harbinger of Villa's downfall. Beardsley and Cole interpassed carefully through Villa's massed cover, Cole's final pass inside the area took a thin deflection off Parker's toe and Lee's unbalanced shot from the six-yard line screamed over the bar. A further sign of Newcastle's resolution came a minute later, when the ball reached the other end and only John Beresford's outstanding tackle prevented Fenton giving Villa a deserved half-time lead.

No one who saw their marathon on Thursday night would blame Villa's players for what happened in the second half. Terry McDermott, Keegan's assistant, reported that his boss had launched a 'blistering' attack on the players during the break, excepting only Srnicek from the accusation of a lack of commitment.

The words worked. Cole in particular assumed more responsibility, bringing Fox into the game and running on to the former Norwich winger's return pass to force a diving save from Spink. After Cole had just failed to get enough curl on to a sidefooted shot from 15 yards, he joined in a move begun by Marc Hottiger's dogged 60- yard run down the right, which ended when Albert took Cole's layback and shot wide from 20 yards.

The zip had disappeared from Villa's movements, although Yorke seemed about to revive their spirits when he beat three Newcastle defenders in the box, only to pass the ball into empty space. Townsend's long-range shot drew a punched clearance from Srnicek. But, after all Villa's valiant efforts, Newcastle took the lead after 65 minutes when Fox made progress down the right and turned the ball inside to Lee, whose second touch produced a sudden low shot from 20 yards. Hit with the outside of his foot, its flight deceived Spink, passing him to his left, well inside the post.

Ugo Ehiogu and Beresford were cautioned either side of the second goal, from Cole, but the game was played in a marvellously open spirit. With luck, both these teams will finish the season with something new on the mantlepiece.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Premiership top six ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Newcastle 8 7 1 0 25 8 22 Blackburn 8 5 2 1 17 5 17 Nottm Forest 7 5 2 0 14 5 17 Man Utd 8 5 1 2 14 6 16 Liverpool 7 4 2 1 16 5 14 Leeds 8 4 2 2 11 8 14 -----------------------------------------------------------------