Newcastle entered today's match against Aston Villa having not scored in 360 minutes, and Villa looked to extend that streak to 450. In the beginning of the match, Newcastle ran wild over Villa's midfield and had numerous chances. But a fully-healthy defense seemed ready to handle anything thrown at them. The right-side combo of Ron Vlaar and Leandro Bacuna, in particular, were playing exceptionally well. I've been plenty tough on Bacuna throughout the season, but the first half was one of his best in the claret and blue. He made an impact on free kicks and was positioning himself very well in the defense.
By about the 25th minute, things had settled down and Villa began pressing. There were a few great chances, but none better than a spell of play ignited by Gabby Agbonlahor. He took an errant Newcastle ball and sprinted up the left line, but was actually caught by the Geordie defense. In an odd twist from what we've seen all season, though, he had three players off to his right, and sent the ball to Christian Benteke who passed it quickly to Karim El Ahmadi. KEA drove towards the right side of the goal, and flashed a nice pass through the six-yard box, but none of the Villa players could quite get to it. After a few more passes the ball ended up in almost exactly the same position, and with almost exactly the same result.
It was rather indicative of Villa in the first half: nice play without that finishing touch. Even more, it was hard to blame on anyone in particular. The pieces were doing their jobs, they just weren't quite in sync. Nevertheless, it was as entertaining of a 0-0 first half as you could hope to see, and Villa headed in looking the better team, though a late defensive miscue had allowed Loic Remy and Papiss Cisse the run of the Villa box. Luckily, Cisse managed to botch an easy shot.
The second half saw Newcastle come out a bit more assertively, or rather saw Villa be a bit more disorganized. The home side weren't really playing much better, but the visitors were much sloppier than they had been in the first half. Nevertheless, things stayed fairly even.
But then, around the 80th minute, Newcastle decided they wanted this match, and the siege was on. Villa, who had been playing smart (if uninspired) football all day suddenly became the stupidest club I've ever seen. Pushing forward wildly and leaving no one back to defend. It was only through the skill of Brad Guzan and the lack of skill from Newcastle's forwards that Villa weren't immediately put out of their misery.
Things got worse when Vlaar made what is likely his worst mistake in a Villa shirt and forced Guzan to charge to his right. This left the goal entirely open for a Remy shot. Luckily, it hit the post and rebounded off. But by this point it was all Newcastle.
And then the inevitable happened. With three minutes of stoppage time added, Loïc Remy scored at 91'33". Here, have a look:
Of course that's how it ended. After one of the more solid first halves I've seen from Villa in a while (again, not great, but fundamentally smart football), the second came as a huge gut-punch. The defense which had looked so good in the first half became a shambles in the second. As you can see in the gif, Bacuna flinching away from the ball gives it the space to get into the net. Vlaar's boneheaded mistake minutes earlier was only saved by the post. Joe Bennett was on for some reason and did nothing.
I'm absolutely gutted by this match. It's really only a point difference. It's not as if we lost much. But dear god. Paul Lambert made some of the worst substitutions he has since becoming manager (and that's saying a lot). Ashley Westwood came off injured, and while the manager has no control over that, he does control who replaces the player. Yacouba Sylla for Westwood was absolutely inexplicable, and Sylla had an atrocious run in the second half. Then, Ryan Bertrand came off after one mistake, to be replaced by the aforementioned Bennett. Meanwhile, with the club unable to complete a pass in the final third, Marc Albrighton languished on the bench, the third substitution unused.
The first half was good. The second was terrible. Villa's attack looked bad, their defense looked bad, and their manager looked bad. The only reason that the midfield get off from looking bad is that they were invisible, so they couldn't look like anything.
What a stupid game. What a stupid team.