By Anthony Marshall - Newcastle United Club Reporter
At the Sports Direct Arena
Newcastle United 1 (Ben Arfa 60)
Aston Villa 1 (Clark 22)
A Hatem Ben Arfa wonderstrike helped Newcastle United secure a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa at the Sports Direct Arena on Sunday.
The Frenchman let fly with a stunner from 25 yards which nestled in the top corner and earned the Magpies a share of the spoils from what was - until that point - an off-key performance.
Earlier, Ciaran Clark's close-range header had given the visitors a half-time lead, with the centre-back pouncing to nod home Barry Bannan's cross from the left.
But following Ben Arfa's leveller, Newcastle clicked into gear and laid siege on the Gallowgate End in search of a winner. Corner after corner and free-kick after free-kick were pumped into the box, but the home side were unable to grab a winner.
Yohan Cabaye almost won it for United with the last kick off the match - a 25-yard free-kick that was heading for the top corner - but found Villa keeper Brad Guzan equal to his effort with an outstanding save.
With just two minutes on the clock captain Fabricio Coloccini had come up with the first chance of the match.
Cabaye's free-kick dropped at the feet of the Argentine around ten yards out, but he was unable to get an early shot away and his eventual strike was deflected behind for a corner.
United were having the better of the opening exchanges, without ever testing recalled Villa keeper Guzan, and full-back Davide Santon saw a penalty claim fall on deaf ears when he tumbled inside the box under the challenge of two defenders.
But it was the visitors who came closest to breaking the deadlock on 19 minutes. When a flick from Andreas Weimann reached Darren Bent at the far post, the former Sunderland striker cut back in onto his left foot, only for Krul to be equal to his effort before Coloccini managed to scramble the loose ball behind.
Just two minutes later Krul was again called upon to deny Bent, this time when the front man got in behind United's defence on the left-hand side of the box.
And having provided tow warnings, Villa opened the scoring on 22 minutes through Clark. The young defender had stayed upfield for a corner and was afforded the freedom of the six-yard box to head home Bannan's left-wing delivery.
Newcastle were almost level with seven minutes. As Demba Ba tricked his way past a couple of challenges and fired a low cross into the box, Cisse met it first time with the only outcome surely being an equaliser. No-one had told Guzan though, who stuck out a leg to repel the danger.
Vurnon Anita then drove inches wide of the upright, shortly before the Magpies were dealt a blow when right-back Danny Simpson hobbled off. He was replaced by Gael Bigirimana, with Anita switching to a role in the defence.
United continued to press, with Ba twice threatening. Last season's leading scorer first sent a shot across the face of goal and narrowly wide before forcing Guzan into a routine stop from 20 yards.
And then right on the stroke of half-time Cisse met a right-wing cross from Anita but the chance went begging as, stretching, he could only head off target.
After the restart Newcastle switched formation slightly to a midfield diamond, with Ben Arfa at the top and Bigirimana at the base, and the former conjured up the maiden opening of the half but was unable to steer his right-footed shot on target.
On 52 minutes Ben Arfa then almost got the hosts back on terms with a rare headed effort, but having risen highest at the far post, he was unable to power Anita's cross past Guzan.
At the other end, Stephen Ireland - who spent a brief loan spell on Tyneside during the 2010/11 campaign drilled straight at Krul from distance, and the Magpies promptly went upfield and equalised.
As Villa failed to properly clear their lines from a long ball into the box, Ben Arfa picked it up on the left, cut inside and from fully 25 yards sent an unstoppable strike into the top corner with his 'weaker' right foot.
The equaliser knocked the stuffing out of the visitors and finally sparked United into life. They looked vibrant, hungry and confident, roared on by more than 45,000 Geordies.
Ben Arfa sent a free-kick over the top, while Ba looped a header onto the roof of the net and by this point there was only one team in the contest.
As the game entered the final ten minutes Villa were offered a rare chance, but Ireland, with seemingly all the time in the world to pick his spot from the edge of the box, half-volleyed well off target, much to the delight of the home crowd.
Alan Pardew introduced Sylvain Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan with four minutes remaining, hoping the duo's injection of pace and trickery could force a winner, and there was almost an immediate impact, with Obertan making two threatening runs down the right in as many minutes.
There was to be one more chance and it arrived deep into five minutes of stoppage time. United were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out, Cabaye stepped up and it was like Manchester United all over again as the ball curled over the wall and headed straight for the top corner.
It would have been the most dramatic of finale's but Guzan hadn't read the script, flying to his right to parry the ball away full stretch, and that proved to be almost the final kick of the match, with the hosts having to settle for a share of the spoils.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Tim Krul; Danny Simpson (Gael Bigirimana 38), Steven Taylor, Fabricio Coloccini (c), Davide Santon; Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye, Vurnon Anita, Jonas Gutierrez (Sylvain Marveaux 86); Demba Ba (Gabriel Obertan 86), Papiss Cisse
Aston Villa (4-1-3-2): Brad Guzan; Matthew Lowton, Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark, Eric Lichaj; Karim El Ahamadi (Charles N'Zogbia 73); Brett Holman, Stephen Ireland, Barry Bannan; Andreas Weimann (Gabriel Agbonlahor 64), Darren Bent
Subs not used: Shay Given, Nathan Baker, Derrick Williams, Graham Burke, Jordan Bowery
Referee: Lee Probert (Wiltshire)