When Alan Shearer struck his 199th Premiership goal inside three minutes at Villa Park last night, Bobby Robson's Newcastle looked to have every chance of taking another major step towards a place in the Champions' League next season.
In the event, Robson was relieved to take away a point after a tactical battle with his fellow former England coach produced a greater degree of satisfaction for the Villa manager. Indeed, Graham Taylor saw his side carve out most of the goal chances, even though the home debut equaliser from the £5m signing Peter Crouch was the only one made to count.
The result leaves Newcastle three points ahead of fifth-placed Chelsea rather than five, although Robson felt on reflection that such an advantage was satisfactory. "It is a hard place to come for a point so it is a valuable one to gain," he said. "We have a game in hand on Chelsea and they would be happy to be in our position, so we should be."
After their 6-2 thumping of Everton on Good Friday, Newcastle had travelled in such good heart that the absence for a seventh consecutive game of Craig Bellamy did not noticeably damage their confidence, especially after Shearer's predatory instincts had brought them such an early reward.
Kieron Dyer, inspirational in the Everton romp, was a key player again. His cross from the right was headed away by Steve Staunton only as far as Laurent Robert, who was unlucky not to score himself with a low left-foot drive from 20 yards that hit Peter Schmeichel's left-hand post with the goalkeeper beaten. Shearer reacted quickest, however, and Newcastle were in front.
The setback posed a test for Villa, still with only one win under Taylor, but their response was to play as well as they have since he took charge. George Boateng drew a full length save from Shay Given almost immediately, and Thomas Hitzlsperger twice found the head of Crouch without reward. The 6ft 7in striker then marked his home debut with a splendid equaliser after 22 minutes, stretching in front of Nikos Dabizas to meet Gareth Barry's cross from the left with a controlled, angled header that gave Given no chance.
It was Villa who then threatened to add to their tally. Juan Pablo Angel, preferred to the out-of-sorts England World Cup hopeful Darius Vassell, was close to getting on the end of another Barry cross, Boateng and Mark Delaney forced more fine saves from Given and Ian Taylor had a powerful effort deflected for a corner by Dabizas.
Newcastle, relieved to reach half-time without going behind, were much more sure-footed in defence during the next phase of play. Even though the home side maintained their dominance of possession, Villa could not achieve the degree of penetration that had been a feature of the first 45 minutes.
Although an extraordinary save by Schmeichel, who produced a mighty leap to beat away Nolberto Solano's attempted lob, prevented Newcastle taking the lead after 74 minutes, Villa finished the stronger. With 14 minutes remaining, Vassell replaced Mustapha Hadji and Bosko Balaban relieved Crouch in a double substitution that brought them back to life and prompted two immediate scares for Newcastle. A header by Staunton was tipped over the bar by Given, who then was at full stretch to keep out a low drive by the impressive Hitzlsperger.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Schmeichel 5; Delaney 7, Mellberg 6, Staunton 7, Barry 8;Hadji 4 (Vassell, 76), Taylor 6, Boateng 7 (Stone, 88), Hitzlsperger 8; Crouch 7 (Balaban, 76), Angel 5. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Samuel.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 8; Hughes 7, O'Brien 7, Dabizas 5, Distin 6; Solano 6, Jenas 5, Dyer 7, Robert 4 (Bernard, 83), Shearer 7, Cort 3 (Acuña, 83). Substitutes not used: Elliott, Harper (gk), Lua Lua.
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol) 7.Reuse content