Nervous times for Newcastle despite Hatem Ben Arfa's bullet against Aston Villa
Newcastle 1 Aston Villa 1
With commendable managerial myopia, Alan Pardew recently bemoaned how his side seemed to be regularly pitted against opponents enjoying a purple patch, a view no doubt shared by each of his top-flight contemporaries when reflecting on their own fixtures. After a pallid Newcastle display against a side without an away win since January, and only a single victory in 19 Premier League matches, he could put forward no such argument this time.
Aston Villa have been anything but purple for the past 12 months, but such are the rapidly shifting sands upon which fortunes appear to be based in the Premier League, the unwanted spotlight on their travails will soon be shifted from Paul Lambert's side and on to Newcastle, given a replication of this result and performance in the next couple of games.
It needed the latest addition to the collection of memorable interventions by the enigma that is Hatem Ben Arfa to ensure the hosts took some comfort from a contest in which they bordered on the comatose for long periods. Seizing on a partial clearance 30 yards from goal, the Frenchman, at best a peripheral figure in the previous 58 minutes, cut inside on to his right foot to unleash a rising drive into the top corner that hit the net almost before Brad Guzan had been able to unfurl a dive in the fanciful hope of preventing the shot from finding its target. It was a moment of inspiration in stark contrast to the vast majority of a Newcastle display that gives Pardew plenty to ponder over the international recess.
In addition to providing an opportunity to regroup, the fortnight's domestic inaction will also afford Newcastle valuable recovery time, after Danny Simpson limped off clutching his hamstring to become the third defender lost to injury in a little over 72 hours.
It could have been an even more unpalatable scenario for Pardew had Villa taken their chances after Ciaran Clark gave them the lead midway through the first half. Andreas Weimann wasted a clear opening to restore the lead less than 60 seconds after Ben Arfa had brought St James' Park to its feet. Stephen Ireland, an increasing influence as the contest wore on, volleyed badly wide from Brett Holman's tee-up 10 minutes from time.
When substitute Gael Bigirimana's desperate late challenge blocked Darren Bent's goal-bound shot, Lambert was fortunate not to shatter the away dugout, such was the force of his frustrated fist on the perspex. Villa remain winless, but this display of resolve and bloody-minded character from Lambert's youthful troops at least gave hope of better things to come as his side climbed off the foot of the table.
Newcastle, into the Europa League group stages and sitting comfortably in mid-table are, of course, far from in crisis. However, questions remain. There is the lack of alternative to the underperforming strike duo Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé, who have scored one goal between in them in a combined total of 12 hours' football. And how to cajole the off-key Yohan Cabaye, who performed like one of the Newcastle players Pardew alluded to having had their heads turned by speculation in the recently closed transfer window? And, of course, there are those injuries.
"We have to be happy with a point," Pardew confessed. "A lot of things went wrong for us but we didn't give in, we changed things around and just about deserved a draw. We weren't quite right and we let an opportunity slip. Having said that, we won't have many sides here this season who work as hard as Villa, so give them credit. But the bottom line was that we didn't deserve to win, given the indifference of our display."
Tim Krul had already blocked a close-range Bent effort in a warning Newcastle failed to heed in the prelude to the visitors taking a 22nd-minute lead. Villa again found gaps down Newcastle's right, allowing Barry Bannan to send over an inviting cross for Clark to head into the bottom corner from six yards.
The hosts would have been level before the interval but for a fine block by Guzan to thwart Cissé's first-time left-foot effort from a dozen yards, after a fine control and cross from Ba. A stunning injury-time save to keep out Cabaye's long-range free-kick alone meant that Guzan justified Lambert's decision to drop Shay Given in the wake of the Irishman's less than convincing display in defeat by Everton.
Lambert can be accused of many things but, in relegating the Irishman to the bench in front of the supporters who still idolise the goalkeeper for his dozen years of sterling service to Newcastle, sentiment is not one of them. "Shay's a world-class keeper, but he understands it's about the team," Lambert insisted.
He added: "We were well worthy of a point. It took a wonder goal to peg us back and if we'd taken our chances we'd have come away with the win. If we keep going that way, we'll be fine. Patience is the key, because we're in transition, but the fans can see a side that will run until it drops."
Booked: Newcastle Gutierrez. Villa El Ahmadi, Lichaj, Holman, Guzan.
Man of the match Ben Afra.
Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Newcastle 52%. Villa 48%.
Attempts on target: Newcastle 4. Villa 5.
Referee L Probert (Wiltshire).
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