Yesterday saw the two contrasting sides of this Villa team. One was short on quality excitement and, unforgivably, effort. The other was emblematic of everything that is expected of a Martin O'Neill team; verve and power vanquishing a Newcastle side woefully lacking in spirit. The game, for me personally, was a game of firsts: first time I've seen a Villa player score a hatrick live, that hatrick being Carew's first for us, first time I've seen us score 4 in one half (and possibly ever, though my memories failing me a bit here), the first time Bouma has scored for us and the first time I thought Shaun Maloney could become a top Premiership player.
It was also the game in which Marlon Harewood established himself, in my opinion, as a Villa Park cult hero. The pure passion and commitment he so visibly demonstrated lifted the crowd and the rest of the team. He played some role in two of our goals but his overall impact was much more than that. Whether thumping his chest, bellowing at the Holte End or piling into team celebrations Marlon was at the heart of everything. He matched Reo-Coker's benchmark for enthusiasm and desire and suddenly it is quite easy to see how West Ham did so well a few seasons ago.
One player who would do well to follow his example is Stilian Petrov. I have tried to make excuses for Petrov before and he has played well for us at times this season but yesterday he was nothing short of disrgaceful. His only contributions to the game were negative and he seems to have mastered Lee Hendrie's talent for just not making it to challenges and bottling out of them. I should know because I've done exactly the same thing, but I haven't done it whilst being paid thousands upon thousands of pounds a week. He let the supporters down yesterday and they knew it and responded negatively. The reaction towards him by the end of the half was reminiscent of those given to Milan Baros towards the end of his Villa career. I hope Petrov turns it round, but I can't see it happening now. He cannot get into the centre of our midfield and can't perform consistently anywhere else. Without wanting to outright scapegoat him I think his performance affected Mellberg badly as well, and both were deservedly taken off at half time.
We could have been level despite these two poor performances at the break. Owen's headed goal represented Newcastle's only serious attack whilst we were unlucky not to get a penalty and Carew missed a good chance. Despite these opportunities, though, Newcastle got the better of us first half and would probably have backed themselves to keep it quiet for ten minutes at the start of the second and try to turn the crowd further against the home side. If they did they were alone, the fact we still created chances whilst playing fairly abysmally in the first half was a good indicator of what would happen if we upped our game in the second.
The second half saw the whole team match Reo-Coker's drive and spirit, and suddenly the game was transformed. There was an element of luck about two of our goals, and only Steven Carr knows why he slapped the ball right in front of the referee, but we routed Newcastle utterly. One major difference was the movement of our midfield. Barry and Reo were much more willing to break forward, even beyond the front two. This created more space and advanced attacking platforms. Also crucial was the introduction of Gardner at right back. So many times our full-backs discomfort on the ball has limited us severely. Yesterday he proved what a good all-round talent he is, marshalling Duff well down the left and almost taking the roof off the Holte End with two stunning volleys.
And of course Big John deserves his own paragraph. He was stifled in the first half but rampant in the second. When Carew gets a goal his confidence visibly lifts and suddenly he transforms into a skillful, dynamic, fast leader of the line. He becomes unplayable at times, just like Arsenal and Man City earlier this winter.
That second half performance could be the catalyst for the last 12 games of the season. We are close enough now to see whats at stake this year and whilst I still think we're short of challenging for a Champions League place, European football is there for the taking. Its just a shame there's a few weeks off now, though a week in Spain did us a world of good last year.