Newcastle United 2 Aston Villa 0
Aston Villa spurned the chance to gatecrash their way back into the Premier League top four after running into rejuvenated Newcastle United at St James’ Park.
Obafemi Martins struck in the 60th and 82rd minutes to lift Joe Kinnear’s strugglers off the foot of the table and throw a spanner in Villa’s Champions League aspirations.
Considering James Milner was one of Newcastle’s prized possessions a matter of months ago, there was a muted response to his first return to St James’ Park by the Toon Army with a ripple of polite applause before kick-off and some half-hearted boos during the action.
Instead, the passionate black and white brigade were clearly saving their voices to hero worship their latest flavour of the month, Martins, who responded to his adulation by giving the Villa defence the runaround all night and grabbing a match-winning brace.
While Martin Laursen helped Villa withstand a determined start to both halves by Joe Kinnear’s improving side even the claret and blue colossus was powerless to contain the Nigerian international striker at times.
During one particularly impressive raid around the half-hour mark, Martins burst past Laursen and turned left-back Nicky Shorey inside out, only to fire over the bar as he closed in on Brad Friedel’s goal.
By then Martins had already got the better of Laursen’s central defensive partner Carlos Cuellar, smashing a shot from the edge of the box a couple of feet off target.
Joey Barton, a player rated by O’Neill, but not enough for the Villa manager to consider signing him, also tested Friedel with a low stinging drive from distance and Steven Taylor came within a whisker of converting Habib Beye’s cross.
Although the Geordies shaded territory and possession before the break, they did not have it all their own way, however, and O’Neill’s men, despite failing to find their rhythm, carved out the three clearest chances of the first period.
Laursen, as well as leading a resilient rearguard action, brushed the outside of the post with a trademark header from Gareth Barry’s right-wing corner from the game’s first moment of note on 11 minutes.
Gabriel Agbonlahor then showed his best to work the ball wide to Milner and his worst to completely miss-hit his intended shot from close range after the winger put the return ball on a plate for him.
Indeed Villa deserved the lead from the move of the match on 36 minutes after Carew, Barry, Agbonlahor and Young expertly combined, only for the latter to be thwarted by United keeper Shay Given.
Carew was the only change from the side that defeated Blackburn last week, replacing hamstring injury victim Stiliyan Petrov as Villa reverted to 4-4-2.
The big Norwegian showed strong hold up play and when Barry’s slide rule pass to Agbonlahor was worked into Young’s path, the former Watford winger’s fierce drive was saved by Given at point blank range.
Villa completely failed to get into their stride after the interval, however, as the Magpies, roared on by the majority of the 44,565 crowd made most of the running.
A series of decisions which went against the home team cranked up the atmosphere, especially when they felt bad boy Barton was harshly booked for a foul on Luke Young.
Newcastle’s breakthrough goal on 60 minutes had an air of inevitability about it and even more inevitable was the identity of the goalscorer – Martins.
The Toon No 9 took delivery of a neat ball by Barton on the edge of the box and turned to bury a measured finish beyond the reach of Friedel and into the bottom corner.
Nicky Butt, who had replaced Danny Guthrie in the only change to the Newcastle team that defeated West Bromwich Albion last week, came within a coat of paint of doubling the lead when his free-kick clipped the post.
Not even the 72nd minute introduction of Steve Sidwell could kick-start Villa, although the midfielder’s first touch was a flick that set up Milner, with the winger miss-kicking.
Kinnear’s men made sure of their second successive victory when Jonas Gutierrez got to the by-line and his cutback was tapped in by Martins with eight minutes left.
Scorer: Martins (60, 82).
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Beye, Taylor, Coloccini, Jose Enrique; Duff, Butt, Barton, Gutierrez; Martins (Cacapa, 88), Ameobi (Owen, 90). Substitutes: Guthrie, Bassong, Harper, N’Zogbia, Geremi.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Cuellar, Laursen, Shorey (Sidwell, 72); Milner, Barry, Reo-Coker (Harewood, 85), A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes: Davies, Knight, Salifou, Guzan, Gardner.
Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent)
Bookings: Newcastle – Beye, Barton (both fouls), Martin (dissent), Ameobi (foul); Villa – Barry, Sidwell (both fouls).