Aston Villa 2 Newcastle United 0
- Lee Mason
Newcastle United’s mini unbeaten stretch was brought to a close as two first-half goals – both from set pieces – secured a comfortable victory for Aston Villa.
The Magpies never really got going at Villa Park but they remained on level terms until the 32nd minute, when Conor Hourihane swung the ball around the United wall and past Martin Dúbravka after playing a free kick short to Jack Grealish.
Less than five minutes later, Hourihane turned provider for Anwar El-Ghazi, who found the roof of the net from deep inside the penalty area to put Villa into a commanding position.
Steve Bruce’s charges enjoyed their best spell immediately after the break, but failed to make the most of a brief period of pressure. Changes to both formation and personnel ultimately made little difference as the newly-promoted outfit eased over the line.
Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almirón both tried their luck from range for Newcastle early on but it was the hosts who had the better of the opening exchanges. Federico Fernández was forced into a crucial headed clearance to keep Hourihane’s cross from reaching a Villa head before a superb Matt Targett ball flashed across the face of goal after El-Ghazi chose not to gamble.
Villa continued to probe as the half-hour mark approached, with Grealish a constant threat on the left of an attacking midfield triumvirate. The Magpies were afforded a bit of respite after Saint-Maximin won a free kick deep on the left-hand side, from which Jonjo Shelvey brought a decent stop out of Tom Heaton.
However, that was to be as good as it got for Newcastle before the break. Dean Smith’s side swiftly went on the attack once more, and only a fingertip save from Dúbravka stopped Douglas Luiz’s 20-yard piledriver from hitting the net. Moments later, Grealish won a free kick after being clumsily pushed to the floor by DeAndre Yedlin and, from it, Villa took the lead. Grealish – making his first start for the home side for almost a month – trapped Hourihane’s short set-piece dead and the Irishman neatly picked out the near corner with a curling strike.
The Magpies were starting to look a little ragged, and just four minutes later they conceded another free kick in a dangerous position. Fernández was the culprit this time around – tripping Grealish just to the left of the area – and again United were punished, as El-Ghazi capitalised on some slack defending to apply the finishing touch to Hourihane’s in-swinging delivery.
Though Fernández came close to pulling one back with a downward header – tipped over by Heaton – United could have few complaints about being two behind at the interval. They did, however, start the second half in far more encouraging manner. An early Saint-Maximin strike nearly found the far corner of the net, with the Villa ‘keeper doing brilliantly to steer the ball around the base of the far post. Two minutes later, Joelinton saw an 18-yard strike deflect over Heaton’s crossbar after the ball clipped defender Ezri Konsa.
Konsa himself then quickly fired a warning shot back the Magpies’ way, with Dúbravka making a vital stop to keep out the youngster’s header after United were caught napping from a Grealish corner. Having started the half slowly, Villa started to get a foothold again, prompting Bruce to bring Andy Carroll onto the pitch – sending the Geordie frontman up top and Joelinton across to the left. Carroll got on effort away after swivelling inside the box on 70 minutes, but Heaton was equal to it.
As the Magpies started to take more risks going forward, they grew increasingly vulnerable to the Villa counter. On 76 minutes, Grealish linked up with John McGinn, who saw a low strike into the ground gathered by Dúbravka. The hosts ought to have made the game safe with their next attack, only for frontman Wesley to side-foot straight at the Newcastle ‘keeper after meeting Hourihane’s square.
However, it was to matter little in the end, as United’s attacking charge petered out and Villa comfortably saw out the remainder of the game. McGinn twice came close to adding a touch of gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time, shooting just wide with a left-footed drive before seeing a deflected 20-yard strike drop just past the far post.