Newcastle United are back on top of the Championship and pleasingly for them have reached the stage where a countdown to promotion can begin. Six more victories might do it.

Aston Villa are enduring a rather different self-assessment. They are counting the defeats – five in a row, seven in the last eight in the league.

Those contrasting views do not tell the full story here. Karl Darlow, in the Newcastle goal, was as impressive as Sam Johnstone at the other end. But Rafael Benítez’s team forced two opportunities across the line when it mattered, while Steve Bruce’s could not.

It was a marginal victory, a marginal defeat. Bruce, jeered by the home fans as a former Sunderland manager, had the disheartened bearing of a man who had dropped his kebab after missing the last bus. Still, he was not Henri Lansbury. The Villa midfielder is a disliked man on Tyneside owing to his role in the red cards shown to Jonjo Shelvey and Paul Dummett when Lansbury was a Nottingham Forest player in December.

And, decisively in a close contest, Lansbury’s own goal on the hour gave Newcastle breathing space they needed. St. James’ Park enjoyed that. Three minutes before half-time, Yoan Gouffran had made it 1-0. Newcastle were not wholly convincing; they got the job done. What made things worse for Villa was a late injury to Scott Hogan. He departed on a stretcher.

Both clubs went down together last season but the state of Newcastle, though fragile, turned out to be like oak compared to Villa. Then again, Newcastle had 20 points more than Villa on relegation. That gap was 30 points on kick-off here.

Bruce became the seventh manager in six years when he arrived in October, which tells of a fall that was a long time coming. Newcastle fans feared a similar collapse until they heard from Benítez that he would stay to manage in the Championship. Gratitude has flowed the Spaniard’s way ever since. It now includes a giant Benítez flag, unveiled for the first time on the Gallowgate End.

The home crowd wanted to make this intimidating. A particular animosity has developed between the two fanbases since Newcastle were relegated on the last day of season 2008-09 – at Villa Park.

Geordies have relished Villa’s struggles this season and anticipated some more of that. It did not work out as they had hoped, at least not at first.

Although Benítez was able to name Dwight Gayle in his starting XI for the first time in a month, Newcastle’s No9 barely got a touch before limping off in the 33rd minute pointing to his left hamstring.

On came Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose unpredictability can be relied on. St James’ fretted. Villa did not. Far from being flustered and nervous – as their recent run of results would have suggested – Bruce must have been surprised at Villa’s level of comfort. Mile Jedinak, not Shelvey, was the dominant midfielder. Darlow, notJohnstone, was the anxious goalkeeper.

Newcastle had not produced a shot on target until Gouffran’s goal. It was tepid stuff, which must have encouraged Villa.

Darlow had made a vital save back-pedalling to tip over a deflected cross from the menacing Jonathan Kodjia. Before that, in the sixth minute, Hogan had the first decent chance. However, from a long Neil Taylor free-kick, Hogan lost his bearings when unmarked six yards out. He still headed the ball goalwards but it was just too far ahead of Birkir Bjarnason at the far post.

As an attacking presence, Newcastle were invisible. Then, from a rush and push, they won a corner. It was taken short to Matt Ritchie who flung it to the head of Jamaal Lascelles. A scramble ensued and after Ciaran Clark had swung a leg at the ball, it fell to Gouffran to poke home.

On the touchline Bruce was a portrait of frustration, a familiar look. Yet he could tell his players at half-time they were matching the promotion favourites and there was an initial strong response.

But then, for the first time, Mohamed Diamé imposed himself on the match. Springing forward from Newcastle’s midfield, he was upended 20 yards from Villa’s goal. Shelvey belted the resulting free-kick around the wall, bringing a diving save from Johnstone, and a corner. When that was cleared another followed, whipped in by Shelvey. Lascelles met it on the run with a flick to the near post. Lansbury was stationed there but embarrassingly the ball hit the post and rebounded off the back of his shin and over the line.

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