Newcastle manager Steve Bruce’s maiden return to former club Aston Villa ended in a wretched 2-0 Premier League defeat.
Goals from Conor Hourihane and Anwar El Ghazi in the space of four first-half minutes eased Villa’s recent woes after a run of three straight defeats had plunged Dean Smith’s side to one place above the relegation zone.
Inspired by returning captain Jack Grealish after a month-long absence with a calf injury, Villa ensured it was an unhappy visit back to Villa Park for Bruce, who was sacked in October last year after two years in charge.
Grealish, sidelined for the 2-1 defeats at home to Liverpool and at Wolves, again provided the spark Villa had been missing in those games.
In fairness, little had been created by either side in the opening half-hour, with El Ghazi a yard shy of a toe poke onto a piercing low ball into the six-yard box from Matt Targett, while Martin Dubravka produced a stunning fingertip save to deny Douglas Luiz’s fizzing 22-yard right-foot curler.
Left-back Targett was the victim of a bizarre 20th-minute incident when he vomited on the pitch just after he had taken a throw-in – but after treatment and water the £15.6million summer signing from Southampton was able to continue.
Although Villa were always the more threatening side, with the Magpies primarily reliant on the counter-attack, it required two set-piece situations to prise open the visitors.Aston Villa’s Matt Targett was unwell early on (Nick Potts/PA)
The first arrived in the 32nd minute as Grealish raced onto a raking through ball, only for the attacking midfielder to be blatantly pushed in the back by the covering DeAndre Yedlin a yard outside the area.
It was prime territory for Hourihane, whose first touch was a tap pass to Grealish who in turn stopped the ball dead. The Republic of Ireland international sumptuously whipped around the wall, and the poorly-positioned Dubravka, for his fifth goal of the season.
Four minutes later Villa doubled their lead, with Grealish again drawing a foul, although it appeared as if he had deliberately caught the outstretched leg of Federico Fernandez.
On this occasion, Hourihane curled a piercing low ball into the six-yard box, and with Newcastle’s defence leaden-footed, El Ghazi easily stabbed home his fourth goal of the season from three yards.Hourihane enjoyed his goal (Nick Potts/PA)
It prompted cries from the Villa fans of ‘Brucey, Brucey what’s the score?’ as the home faithful teased their former boss.
Villa, though, were then indebted to Tom Heaton for preserving their two-goal cushion just before and after the break. First he pushed away a downward header from Fernandez, before tipping beyond the post a corner-of-the-net-bound 20-yard strike from Allan Saint-Maximin.
Dubravka responded in the 53rd minute with a brilliant save of his own as his defence again went missing, pushing away a six-yard header from an unmarked Ezri Konsa onto an inswinging Grealish corner.
In the 77th minute, Dubravka again denied Villa a third, saving from Wesley at point-blank range after another low ball had been played into the six-yard box, this time from Targett.
Despite Bruce playing all three substitutes, including strikers Andy Carroll and Dwight Gayle, his side were unable to find a way back into the game.
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