In any loss, you can point to a moment or two of poor play and brush aside any claims that the effort was good enough to deserve better; that was certainly the case today, be it Demba Ba left unmarked by Carlos Cuellar in front of goal or Richard Dunne whiffing a chance to clear and letting the ball fall to Papiss Demba Cisse. Two goals that could have been prevented, and it turned out to be all that the home side needed to take three points. But you could find moments like that in every game for either side, and ultimately Villa's efforts today deserved more. This was a very frustrating loss on the heels of a very frustrating draw, but it was frustrating in large part because it took two tremendous individual efforts from Newcastle strikers to nullify a strong performance from a severely weakened Villa side.
Villa yet again came out playing a very high-pressure style early on, sitting medium-deep in defense and looking to force errors and spring counter-attacks in midfield. It's something they've been doing for a little while now, (especially playing away) and I'm a big fan of the approach; it's not something you'd want to do for 90 minutes with this personnel, but it's been successful in throwing the opposition off of their game and keeping them from controlling the pace early on. It kept Newcastle from getting into any sort of rhythm in the attack, but Villa wasn't able to get much going early on in their own right and the result was a quarter-hour or so of fast-paced, chaotic pinball more or less. Eventually things settled down a but and Villa ended up in control of things for the most part, but the home side's superb defense ensured keeper Tim Krul didn't have much to worry about.
Newcastle then illustrated why they're generally content to settle back and let the opposition hang onto the ball for a bit when they unleashed a flurry of counter-attacking play that instantly changed the mood of the game. Demba Ba's acrobatic finish of a deflected Ryan Taylor effort (during the course of which the winger appeared to sustain a serious leg injury) gave the home side a lead that seemed miles away just a few minutes prior, and Newcastle would continue to threaten for the remainder of the half. The roles reversed pretty quickly, but the Villa defense never looked as comfortable with the hatches battened down as Newcastle's did, and the Toon were very close to grabbing a second and effectively killing the game off before the interval despite Villa having a fairly strong first half-hour.
And then it was Villa's turn to grab a goal seemingly out of nowhere. And given that it was a goal that came seemingly out of nowhere, who else but Robbie Keane to score it? He and Charles N'Zogbia combined brilliantly for a lightning-quick counter attack that stunned seemingly everyone in attendance at St James' Park, including most of the men in claret and blue. Robbie Keane's loan deal has been an undeniable success, and while that's a wonderful thing the realization that he's going to be gone in just a few weeks is rightly beginning to make quite a few people nervous. (Particularly me, seeing as how he'll be returning to my beloved Seattle Sounders' biggest roadblock to an MLS title.) But seeing what a player like Keane brings to the team should at the very least make it undeniable what kind of signing Alex McLeish ought to make his top priority in the summer.
The second half began with some heart-in-throat moments, Villa's defense very nearly giving up another goal less than a minute after the game resumed. That gave everyone a pretty decent idea of what was to come, as the latter 45 minutes were as breathless and entertaining as any that I can recall Villa taking part in all season. It was as though both managers saw three points for the taking and said "to hell with it" at half time. Before things kicked off there was plenty of reason to think this would be something of a drab affair, but nothing could have been further from the truth. It was a sloppy, chaotic mess a lot of the time but I'll be damned if it wasn't fun to watch, and though it's obviously quite a shame that Newcastle had to be the side to grab the winner it was as fitting a winner this game could have asked for; the lead up to and execution of Cisse's side-footed half-volley was the perfect blend of sloppy defending, (un) fortunate bounces, sublime skill and sheer dumb luck. People that follow both the Premier League and Bundesliga closely were effusive in their praise of Pardew's signing of Cisse; today he showed everyone why.
Villa continued to push right up until the end, but it wasn't to be. It was another strong performance marred by a few frustrating mistakes. Frustrating because it feels like yet another missed opportunity, but Newcastle shouldn't be sold short; Alan Pardew has done a tremendous job rebuilding that squad, and as it stands they're just a point shy of the Champions League and a solid bet to at the very least give Europa a go next season. The time has long since passed that the Toon's place in the table could be reliably chalked up to luck or strength of schedule. Newcastle is just really a very good team, and thanks to the addition of Cisse look in a position to take a step towards becoming even better next season. There's a difference between frustrating and disappointing, and today was the former. What is disappointing is that Villa spent so much of the season pissing around and dropping points, because the team we've seen in 2012 is better than 13th in the league. It's tempting to think that if Gabby Agbonlahor or Mark Albrighton had been available today things may have turned out differently.
Of course, if rumors of Charles N'Zogbia being unhappy or Stephen Ireland flinging f-bombs at his notoriously touchy and disciplinarian manager are true, these frustrating results in spite of strong performances may end up being the highlight of the 2012 portion of this season. If there's one thing I know about Villa, its the tendency of thing to just kind of up and explode into a fiery ball of flames just when it looked like they might be turning around.