Collins gives Villa some breathing space

Aston Villa 1 Newcastle United 0
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The Independent Football

Aston Villa may have picked the wrong day to launch a "Bring a scarf" initiative aimed at making Villa Park a claret and blue citadel, but on a sun-baked afternoon they edged away from the relegation zone, thanks to a first-half header by defender James Collins.

Booed from the pitch following their previous home match, a derby defeat by Wolves which led to calls for the head of manager Gerard Houllier, Villa were cheered off after opening up a five-point gap over 18th-placed West Ham. Next Saturday, intriguingly, they face Avram Grant's side in east London.

Newcastle, who are two points ahead of Villa, were entitled to feel aggrieved by the decision by referee Stuart Attwell, which led to the goal midway through the first half. Joey Barton was harshly adjudged to have brought down Ashley Young, the Premier League's most fouled player, and let the England attacker know he felt he went to ground too easily.

Young, undaunted, whipped in a fast, curling free-kick from the left which saw Collins rise in a congested goalmouth to glance the ball beyond goalkeeper Steve Harper. "If you make the right runs, his delivery is second to none," said Collins, who before the Wolves debacle had been involved in a spat at a health spa with a member of Houllier's backroom staff.

It was not Barton's day. Having put pressure on himself with his boasts about being the best midfielder in England and disparaging asides about Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, Newcastle's acting captain fluffed an early chance by heading Jose Enrique's cross into the Holte End. After several irritable exchanges with Mr Attwell, Barton was finally booked for fouling Nigel Reo-Coker in the closing minutes.

Houllier and his Newcastle counterpart, Alan Pardew, unsurprisingly viewed Barton's challenge on Young differently. "It was a free-kick – even the fourth official said it was," insisted the Frenchman, who likened his player's twisting style to an eel. Pardew said Barton had "hardly touched" Young, adding: "We kept saying before the match that if you touch him, he goes over." Villa, however, could point to another decision that had a bearing on their staccato performance. Just before half-time, Jean Makoun threaded an exquisite through-ball to Darren Bent. The £24m striker appeared to be level with the last defender when he slotted home, only for an offside flag to dash his hopes of the 2-0 lead that might have allowed Villa to relax.

Subs: Aston Villa Reo-Coker 6 (Makoun, 67), Cuellar (Walker, 77), Pires (Agbonlahor, 86) Unused Marshall (gk), Clark, Albrighton, Heskey.

Newcastle R Taylor 5 (S Taylor, 63), Kuqi (Ranger, 83). Unused Krul (gk), Tavernier, Ferguson, Donaldson, Richardson. Booked: Villa Petrov, Cuellar. Newcastle Williamson, Barton. Man of the match Enrique Match rating 6/10.

Possession Aston Villa 51% Newcastle 49%.

Attempts on target Aston Villa 7 Newcastle 4.

Referee S Attwell (Warwicks) Att 37,090.