When Newcastle United last visited Villa Park on a cold night at the end of January, they arrived buoyed by an influx of new signings from France and, with three debutants involved, came away with a 2-1 victory.
Yesterday, fresh from the closing of a rather quieter, transfer window, there was only one new face – loanee Loïc Remy making his first start – but the outcome was identical. For that, Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, had Hatem Ben Arfa to thank.
The Frenchman had scored a spectacular late winner against Fulham in Newcastle’s previous fixture and he played a pivotal part in this victory, scoring the first goal and setting up the second, when he cut in from the right and powered in a shot which Brad Guzan could parry only as far as the substitute Yoan Gouffran with 17 minutes remaining.
Pardew was full of praise for man of the match Ben Arfa – describing him as “magnificent, unplayable really” – and he was also delighted with Remy, the one that got away in January when he opted to join QPR rather than Newcastle, who helped set up his side’s opening goal after 18 minutes.
After Karim El Ahmadi was hustled out of possession by Vernon Anita, Remy got past Matt Lowton down the left and directed a low ball to the six-yard box where Papiss Cissé touched it on and Ben Arfa swept the ball past Guzan.
“For the first time since Demba Ba left I thought we carried an offensive threat that a Newcastle team should have and Loïc Remy has boosted that,” Pardew said.
Victory was no more than Newcastle deserved against a disjointed Villa and it should help dispel some of the gloom that has settled on the Tyne. The club’s former goalkeeper, Steve Harper, spoke about the “toxic relationship” between the club’s board and supporters before his testimonial on Wednesday – a night of warm nostalgia that ended with 1990s heroes like Alan Shearer and Rob Lee adding their own criticism of Mike Ashley’s regime afterwards.
The discontent was clear to see in the away end yesterday where one banner read “You stole the soul”. Another, referring to Joe Kinnear’s return as a director of football, read: “Joke Kinnear: director of f***all”.
Pardew stressed that “the only answer is to win games” and he suggested this performance provided evidence of a strong starting XI at least. “We had our best players available today and anyone here would say we have a strong side with our best team,” he said. “If we keep them fit we have a chance of a good season.”
As for Villa, the optimism engendered by that opening win at Arsenal will fade fast if they keep performing like this. This was their third successive League defeat and their 26th top-flight game without a clean sheet. “We never got going in the first half,” said Lambert, who lost the defender Jores Okore to a knee injury in the first half. “You can’t concede goals like we did and expect to get something.”
Villa could have conceded more than one in the first half with Yohan Cabaye – back in the Newcastle side after going on strike for the first two games amid interest from Arsenal – flashed an angled effort wide of the far post just before the break.
For Villa too many passes were going astray but after Gabriel Agbonlahor had turned wide an inviting cross from Andreas Weimann, Christian Benteke climbed above everyone to head them level from Ashley Westwood’s corner midway through the second half. Yet Ben Arfa ensured parity did not last long. He had already cut infield and drawn one diving save from Guzan and when Villa’s defence let him repeat the trick, they paid a heavy price.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Guzan; Lowton, Okore, Vlaar, Luna; Weimann (Tonev, 88), El Ahmadi (Kozak, 67), Delph, Westwood, Agbonlahor; Benteke.
Newcastle United (4-2-3-1): Krul; Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa, Coloccini, Santon; Sissoko, Anita (Tioté, 74); Ben Arfa, Cabaye (Ameobi, 88), Remy (Gouffran, 63); Cissé.
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Ben Arfa (Newcastle)
Match rating: 6/10