O'Brien's red card gives Newcastle rare resolve

Aston Villa 0 Newcastle United 0
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The Greeks long ago introduced the concept of a Pyrrhic victory; yesterday Newcastle United discovered the Pyrrhic draw.

The Greeks long ago introduced the concept of a Pyrrhic victory; yesterday Newcastle United discovered the Pyrrhic draw.

The price Sir Bobby Robson paid for his point at Villa Park was a huge one. Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Jenas, who suffered hamstring injuries, may not play again this season. Kieron Dyer, less seriously hurt, is likely to be absent from Thursday's Uefa Cup semi-final with Marseilles. And after being shown a straight red card in the ninth minute of what was often a brutal and compelling contest, Andy O'Brien will probably miss two of Newcastle's last four Premiership games.

They have deep resources at St James' Park - Michael Bridges, Lee Bowyer and Hugo Viana would make most Premiership first teams - but between them they have started only a handful of games and each has yet to convince in a black-and-white-shirt. However, given that only four clubs in the four English divisions have won fewer than Newcastle's two away matches this season, Robson would probably have settled for a point before kick-off and he most certainly would have done once O'Brien was dismissed.

As he had done for the previous Sunday's goalless draw with Arsenal, Robson had preferred the Yorkshireman to Titus Bramble because of his superior pace. O'Brien is quick but Darius Vassell is supremely fast and as they chased Thomas Hitzlsperger's through-ball, the striker appeared to be shoved to the ground. Barrie Knight, without consulting his linesman, dismissed him for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.

Robson was not critical of Knight's overall performance but argued the official was at fault for the red card. "At no time whatsoever did Vassell touch the ball, at no time whatsoever did Vassell get in front of O'Brien. They were going for a 50:50 ball and the striker fell over. In those circumstances, the benefit of the doubt should go to the defender," he said.

In November, O'Brien had been sent off in a similar fashion at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea had thrashed Newcastle 5-0. Yesterday, they delivered a performance which in Robson's words overflowed with "morale, guts, commitment and work-ethic. We were determined we were not going to concede unless it was to something magical." In the absence of Juan Pablo Angel, Aston Villa were desperately short of wizardry.

Their manager, David O'Leary, thought that Newcastle played with more discipline with 10 men than they had for most of their matches outside Tyneside with 11. "The onus was on us to break them down. We needed a special guile to do that and it was missing," he said. It took Aston Villa 58 minutes following O'Brien's sending-off even to force Shay Given into a save, and it was a feat they did not repeat. Robson counted one worthwhile cross delivered into the Newcastle area.

Villa did, however, have what appeared to be a legitimate goal disallowed a minute from the break. Once more it was Vassell's speed which caused panic. This time he was neck-and-neck with Aaron Hughes, whom he appeared to foul before scoring. Replays suggested the Ulsterman did little more than trip over his own feet.

Thanks to Laurent Robert's present mood, Newcastle are familiar with the concept of playing a man short and the Frenchman, whose listless display against Arsenal had driven Robson to the edge of fury, was hauled off after half-an-hour. "Sometimes he doesn't enjoy 11 against 11, so I knew he wouldn't enjoy this," Robson said. However, until Bellamy pulled up with an obviously torn hamstring, Newcastle carried a reasonable threat on the counter.

Over the weekend the three leading candidates for the final Champions' League place endured goalless draws. Liverpool's was further evidence of a tired regime in deep decline; Villa's showed O'Leary's vastly-improved side still have some way to travel to join the élite; Newcastle's suggested they might just have the required grit to make it.

Aston Villa: (4-4-2) Sorensen 6, De La Cruz 5, Mellberg 8, Johnsen 7 (Ridgewell 89), Samuel 5, Solano 6 (Whittingham 69 4), Hendrie 5, Hitzlsperger 5, Barry 4, Crouch 4 (Allback 62 5), Vassell 6. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Delaney.

Newcastle United: (4-4-2) Given 6, Hughes 6, O'Brien 3, Woodgate 9, Bernard 6, Dyer 5, Jenas 4 (Viana 32 4), Speed 8, Robert 3 (Bowyer 32 5), Bellamy 6 (Bridges 52 6), Shearer 6. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Elliott.

Referee: B.Knight (Kent) 5.

Sent off: Newcastle: O'Brien.

Bookings: Villa: De La Cruz. Newcastle: Shearer, Speed, Bridges, Given.

Man of the match: Woodgate.

Attendance: 40,786.