In what was arguably their best performance since the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge on December 31 of 2011, Aston Villa managed to escape St. Jams' Park with a point after seeing out a 1-1 draw. Ciaran Clark put Aston Villa ahead in the 22nd minute after rifling a header past Tim Krul from Barry Bannan's pinpoint cross. Hatem Ben Arfa drew the home side level just shy of the hour mark with a stunning long range effort that Brad Guzan was helpless to stop. The final half hour was thrilling, end-to-end stuff and each side had some golden chances to take the lead, but in the end a draw is probably the fair result and one from which Aston Villa can certainly take confidence.
Paul Lambert started the game with his third different lineup of the season, with Eric Lichaj getting his first start of the season and Charles N'Zogbia left out of the team in favor of Andreas Weimann in Villa's 4-3-1-2. Lichaj did not have the best of days playing out of position at left back, but Weimann once again impressed, his dangerous runs opening up space for Darren Bent and keeping the pressure on Newcastle's back four. The aforementioned Bent had what was easily his best game of the season, and though he was unable to capitalize on a few good chances his movement, positioning, and involvement in the game were miles better than in past weeks. The earlier moments of the game were somewhat marred by impressive build-up play from Villa leading to wastefulness in the final third, but as the game progressed it was clear to see the squad playing with an increasing level of confidence.
It would have been easy to allow spirits to drop and shoulders to slump following Ben Arfa's stunner of an equalizer, but if anything it led to a new sharpness and as the game opened up it was apparent that Aston Villa were just as intent on re-taking the lead as they were grinding out the draw. The best chance for the visitors came in the 80th minute, when a clever lay-off from Gabby Agbonlahor gave Stephen Ireland a golden opportunity that he squandered by missing wide just to the right of the penalty spot. It was a frustrating day for Ireland, who showed occasional flashes but was wasteful more often than not. Villa would have another excellent chance just three minutes later, when Agbonlahor broke free on the counter and slid the ball to Darren Bent, whose shot was blocked by Gael Bigirimana.
Newcastle had their fair share of chances as well, and none was better than the game's last. After a foul from Brett Holman just outside the box, Yohan Cabaye's free kick looked destined for the top corner but was kept out thanks to a tremendous save from Brad Guzan. Guzan's exceptional performance has given Paul Lambert something to consider. Though Shay Given has been a world-class keeper for many years there's no denying that Guzan's play was easily the best we've seen from a Villa keeper this season.
That Aston Villa will likely be disappointed not to leave St. James' Park with all three points is a testament to the quality of their performance. Barry Bannan looks at home on the left, Ciaran Clark shook off an awful performance against Everton to put in a quality shift today, and in general this looked a completely different side than the one that took the field against the Toffees a week ago. Something to build on, and cause for optimism to be certain. With the international break giving Villa some time to work the new players into the side in training, there's every reason to look forward to the Swansea City match at Villa Park in two weeks.