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Jan 29, 2013

French kiss of life for grateful Toon

It is tempting to say that Moussa Sissoko's incisive through pass, which created Newcastle's opening goal for Papiss Cisse, was the touch which could turn the Magpies' increasingly desperate season around. In fact, it is perhaps fellow newcomer Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa's athletic last-ditch block, which denied Aston Villa's Ciaran Clark a certain equaliser in the frantic dying minutes, that Alan Pardew will be most thankful for when the dust settles on this vital win.

For the first 45 minutes at Villa Park the narrative was clear, with Newcastle reanimated by their injection of fresh French blood. By the end, the new boys were enduring a shared experience of jangling nerves with the dressing room incumbents that have suffered plenty of them in recent weeks.

Whatever Villa's myriad shortcomings may be lack of effort was not one of them here, certainly in a second half in which they threw absolutely everything they had at the visitors. It was an extraordinary response to a tepid first-half display, with Paul Lambert's young charges lacking in confidence and definitely short of class next to their recently reinforced visitors.

"We never got going in the first half," admitted Lambert afterwards. "The second half...that's the way to play football. I couldn't fault them. I don't think I've seen a standing ovation after being beaten at home. It's an incredible thing."

The Scot was not exaggerating when he said Villa had been "relentless" and that the gulf between that face of his side and the meek lambs that grazed through the first half was "night and day."

Paralysis in front of a nerve-wracking night appeared to be the major difficulty for Villa in that first period, even if Charles N'Zogbia smashed a left-footer against Tim Krul's post from outside the area at 1-0, after Christian Benteke might have garnered a penalty when his cross appeared to be cut out by the hand of Fabricio Coloccini with the game still goalless.

Lambert's men could certainly have not have been in any doubt over the importance of the match. Benteke, having been spared Friday's tricky FA Cup trip to Millwall altogether to keep him fresh for this, returned to partner Darren Bent rather than replace him in what appeared to be a positive plan.

The evening's headline in the Birmingham Mail urged supporters to "Back Your Boys." A fair few empty seats were visible as the game kicked off, with the away support's voices filling the stadium, though it was hardly unreasonable given a miserable record of one goal in Villa's previous six home Premier League games. The first we really heard of the seemingly-resigned home fans was brief booing at the end of the first half as Mike Dean blew his whistle for time.

Given their own delicate position in the Premier League table, this trip probably dredged up miserable memories for travelling Newcastle fans of May 2009, when defeat here confirmed relegation in Alan Shearer's final match at the helm. There was nothing reserved about their rumbustious opening to the match, with the injection of new ideas - and new optimism - evident as they poured forward.

Sissoko, grabbing the game with an energy that suggested he'd packed a couple of supplementary lungs in his hand luggage, got the first shot of the match away, which sailed way over the crossbar at the Holte End. His magnificent ball to pick out Cissé, who streaked clear to push the ball under Guzan, was more typical of his surety. Fellow debutant Yoan Gouffran had begun the movement, gathering the ball deep on the right and burrowing into Villa territory.

With Hatem Ben Arfa still "two or three weeks away" from returning, according to Pardew's pre-match press briefing, someone needed to take responsibility and step into the creative breach. Sissoko may be a very different type of player to his injured compatriot, but he has the personality to make this team play. "I was a little surprised myself how Sissoko really grabbed the game by the horns," admitted Pardew, "and that's what we needed. I don't think we'd have won that game if we hadn't signed Sissoko; that's how important that game was."

The current inertia at Villa was underlined by Lambert's confession that he would have loved to sign Sissoko himself, but financial constraints made it impossible - a damning indictment of the current playing budget, given that Newcastle are hardly strolling around the proverbial Harrods with a personal shopper.

Sissoko's more established countrymen were doing their bit as well. Mathieu Debuchy showed the physical element that makes Ligue 1 such an attractive market, winning one bone-jarring challenge against Joe Bennett with an aggression that would have done Steve McMahon proud in his prime. Yohan Cabaye also continued his rehabilitation in fine fashion. When Gutierrez's cross was headed out by Ron Vlaar just after the half-hour, Cabaye had plenty of time to control and lash a sumptuous volley over Guzan for the second goal. The midfielder was spent by the final whistle.

It had become apparent that Lambert might well require the half-time team talk of a lifetime to inject some life into his moribund side. The image towards the end of the first period of the manager instructing his players to put the ball out of play, when Sissoko was down after a bang on the head, but maintaining possession regardless, was one that threatened to linger in the mind.

Lambert has always at least remained positive as all around him crumbled, and he went for broke with a double change for the second period, bringing on Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann for Bennett and the Bent. It worked immediately, with Weimann (left out of the XI after a virus) and then Benteke drawing sharp saves from Krul before the Belgian calmly rolled home a penalty, awarded after Agbonlahor made the most of a loose Debuchy challenge. Finally, the team had brought the crowd to life, while genuine pressure was being applied to visitors without a Premier League away win all season.

That Newcastle overcame their fear to dig in and take the points is to their immense credit. There is plenty of time for more French flair later on.

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