Back in September, Aston Villa came into their first Premier League clash with Newcastle United on a wave of positive sentiment. A strong finish to the previous season sent the club into the offseason on a positive note, and despite losing two of their first three to begin the 2013-14 campaign, a win over Arsenal and impressive showings against Chelsea and Liverpool-as well as a thorough waxing of League One side Rotherham, the first convincing defeat of a lower-league side in Cup competition that Villa fans had seen in some time-had spirits higher than any time in recent memory. Surely given Villa's showing in their first three games against far superior competition, they would take the sword to a Newcastle side that looked little improved from their near-relegation form the previous year?
Of course as we all know, that's not how it turned out. Newcastle seemed fully prepared for Villa's counter-attacking game, and without the relative comfort of a wide-open midfield with which to work, Villa looked overmatched and out of ideas. It looked at the time like a blip, and the next week's win over Norwich seemed to reinforce this belief. But as we're now well aware, this would become something of a theme this season; when the opposition gives Villa any room to play, they can cause a pretty significant amount of damage. But when a team sees Villa as a legitimate threat-and given the current makeup of the Premier League, that's roughly 75% of the teams they'll face this season-they've found the going difficult.
Newcastle hasn't been in good form lately, to say the very least; they're without a win on over a month, and in three games in February they've been outscored 10-0. Despite their cushion in the table there's not much reason to believe they're that much better than Villa, especially given their weakening over the January window. But it's pretty difficult to ignore the relatively equal footing of the two sides last season compared to their standing at present; Villa's not a likely relegation candidate but they're still in the conversation, while Newcastle would need to suffer an absolute collapse in order to find themselves in anything approaching danger.
In short, Newcastle is the level to which Villa ought to aspire at the moment, which isn't especially pleasant but is reality nonetheless. Given Villa's ability to look like something approaching a competent football team on the road and Newcastle's recent record of futility, three points isn't the craziest idea. But small sample size are a strange thing; Newcastle likely isn't as bad as they've appeared this past month, while Villa probably aren't one of the most uniquely competent teams away from home of the modern era. These are two pretty evenly matched sides-Newcastle's probably better at the top end while Villa likely has a bit more raw talent-and predicting it is probably going to be as accurate as a coin toss. That's not an especially encouraging place to be when this result could bring Villa to within a point of the bottom three.