Barclays Premier League
By Anthony Marshall, at Villa Park.....
Aston Villa 1 (Collins 24)
Newcastle United 0
Newcastle slipped to a single-goal defeat at Aston Villa on Sunday, with James Collins' first half header proving the difference between the sides.
The big centre-half headed home an Ashley Young free-kick on 24 minutes, and that proved to be the difference between the sides in a largely uninspiring game.
A quiet second half saw Villa look most likely to score again, but Newcastle rallied late on and home keeper Brad Friedel twice denied Peter Lovenkrands right at the death.
Villa made much of the early running but were unable to turn their pressure into chances, with United keeper Steve Harper only called upon to punch clear a corner and smother at the feet of Stewart Downing when the winger chased a through ball into the box.
At the other end, Nile Ranger - making his full Premier League debut in the absence of injured striker Shola Ameobi - looked lively, looping one header into the arms of Brad Friedel and seeing another effort blocked.
And the first real opportunity fell the way of Newcastle captain Joey Barton on 14 minutes. Slick interplay between Jonas Gutierrez and Jose Enrique down the left saw the latter deliver into the danger zone. Although it missed the cluster of players around the penalty spot, Barton was steaming in at the far post but could only send his diving header harmlessly high and wide.
Just minutes later Ranger was found in space 25 yards out and strode towards the edge of the box, before seeing Friedel get down well to save his low, placed shot.
But it was Villa who broke the deadlock in the 24th minutes. Barton felt aggrieved at being penalised for a foul on Ashley Young, and the resulting free-kick saw defender James Collins rise highest to glance home a header past the despairing dive of Harper.
A combination of Barton, Harper and Danny Simpson denied Gabby Agbonlahor on 32 minutes, when the striker tried to force home Richard Dunne's header at the near post from yet another Villa set-piece.
And the hosts should have doubled their advantage soon after as Downing skipped away from Simpson, but an unmarked Darren Bent could somehow only head over the top from a couple of yards.
Bent thought he had made amends right on the stroke of half-time only to see his cool finish wiped out by a linesman's flag, having wriggled clear of the attentions of Mike Williamson and Steven Taylor
Aston Villa made a bright start to the second half and Harper had to be alert to beat away Young's cross-cum-shot just a couple of minutes in, before the same player flashed a long range effort inches wide.
Harper saved well from Agbonlahor in the 59th minute as the pressure grew, and the home side also had a penalty shout turned down when Bent felt he was bundled over by Steven Taylor inside the area.
It meant a return to central defence for makeshift midfielder Fabricio Coloccini, with Ryan Taylor taking up a spot wide on the right and Barton shifting into the middle. But it failed to yield a change in fortunes as the visitors struggled to get out of their own half.
Collins saw another goal-bound header blocked as chances became a premium, but Newcastle had a golden opportunity to draw level two minutes from the end. Ryan Taylor's intelligent run and cross was inch-perfect for Peter Lovenkrands, but the Dane's powerful header was kept out by a fine Friedel save, low down to his left.
And the veteran keeper had to be at his best again deep into five minutes of stoppage time, denying the same player again brilliantly with his feet after Lovenkrands had found some space in the box.
A Ryan Taylor free-kick hit the roof of the net rather than the back of it as United pressed late on, but it was too little too late, with the hosts picking up all three points in their quest for Premier League survival.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Brad Friedel; Kyle Walker (Carlos Cuellar 77), Richard Dunne, Luke Young; Stewart Downing, Jean Makoun (Nigel Reo-Coker 67), Stiliyan Petrov (c) Ashley Young; Darren Bent, Gabby Agbonlahor (Robert Pires 86)
Subs: Andy Marshall, Ciaran Clark, Marc Albrighton, Emile Heskey
Newcastle (4-4-2): Steve Harper; Danny Simpson, Mike Williamson, Steven Taylor (Ryan Taylor 63), Jose Enrique; Joey Barton (c), Fabricio Coloccini, Danny Guthrie, Jonas Gutierrez; Nile Ranger (Shefki Kuqi 83), Peter Lovenkrands
Subs: Tim Krul, James Tavernier, Shane Ferguson, Ryan Donaldson, Michael Richardson
Referee: Stuart Attwell