Newcastle United got their first win in seven matches as they piled the misery on Aston Villa with a 2-1 victory in the Midlands.
Alan Pardew’s side, who sat just one point above Villa before the match, were brilliant in the first half as their French signings inspired them to a 2-0 lead thanks to strikes from Papiss Cisse and Yohan Cabaye, the latter a real treat from range.
But Villa were a different side in a frantic second period, pulling one back from the penalty spot but denied an equaliser by good goalkeeping and some vital blocks.
The Birmingham side, whose manager Paul Lambert has come under pressure for their poor form and double cup exits to lower-league opposition, deserved a point but instead slumped to their ninth league defeat of the season, extending their winless run to seven matches and sending them into the bottom three on goal difference.
Newcastle, meanwhile, move up to 15th, four points clear of danger and buoyed by their impressive French acquisitions.
The two sides have suffered a downturn in fortunes this season, but the Magpies have been able to respond in the transfer market by signing France internationals both senior and junior.
Three of these January purchases started at Villa Park and the impact was immediate – Mathieu Debuchy aggressive and dominant at right-back, although unlucky to concede a penalty, Yoan Gouffran lively and inventive behind the main striker, and Moussa Sissoko a revelation as an attacking midfielder, creating the opening goal in the process.
Indeed, it was Sissoko’s deployment as a defensive playmaker – shutting down the defence while providing support and passes to Cisse and Gouffran – that allowed Cabaye to adopt a deeper role, pulling the strings and largely eradicating Toon’s recent tendency to go long.
Villa were not at the races in the first half as Jonas Gutierrez forced a block from Ciaran Clark, while Brad Guzan denied Davide Santon’s thunderbolt.
They soon got the breakthrough when Sissoko threaded a delightful through-ball to Cisse, who worked the angle for a driven low finish past Guzan.
The hosts initially responded well, with Charles N’Zogbia hitting the woodwork with a ferocious half-volley, but any hopes of a quick comeback were put to bed when Cabaye showed his compatriot how to do it.
The Frenchman, who is no stranger to marvellous long-range goals, had it all to do when Ron Vlaar’s defensive header dropped to him at 25 yards: his first touch shifted the ball to his right foot, with which he unleashed a wonderful half-volley into the top right.
Some Villa fans appeared be leaving already – at 31 minutes it was surely too early for a half-time beer – although they would have missed an improvement from their side, with Benteke volleying wide after taking Ashley Westwood’s cross on his chest.
A radical change was needed, and Lambert made it by bringing on Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor at half time, although Darren Bent was unfortunate to be withdrawn.
The impact was immediate, Weimann forcing a good save from Tim Krul within seconds, and Benteke doing likewise just afterwards.
It was a chance a minute and, early in the second half, Villa had a spot-kick, although it seemed soft of Mike Dean to penalise Debuchy for a coming together with Agbonlahor. Benteke took the responsibility and slid a cool finish into the bottom left.
Suddenly Newcastle were all over the place, with a Matt Lowton through-ball sending Benteke clear, the Belgian denied a second by Tim Krul’s decision to rush out of his box and launch into a slide tackle, the loose ball rebounding to the left wing.
Krul made another vital intervention, saving a Weimann drive after a glorious Benteke pass put him through from the right, while N’Zogbia lashed an effort into the side netting.
Newcastle needed to halt Villa’s momentum, their initial gambit being to draw Dean’s attention to some physical challenges from the hosts. It worked for a spell, as Benteke and Nathan Baker were booked.
Alan Pardew’s next move was to introduce Shola Ameobi for James Perch, presumably to give Newcastle a ball-retaining outlet higher up the pitch, and to facilitate the withdrawal of Sissoko to a deeper role.
Lowton was lucky to stay on the pitch after appearing to stamp on Santon’s ankle as the match became scrappy, which also suited the visitors.
Villa threw everything forward in the latter stages but they could not find a breakthrough, with substitute Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa making a vital block on his debut and Vlaar seeing a drive blocked in a frantic closing spell.
Newcastle hung on, easing the pressure on Pardew, while Lambert finds himself under yet more scrutiny following embarrassing defeats to Bradford and Millwall.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Tim Krul - Newcastle: The Dutch keeper made a string of vital saves and interventions to help his side claim a rare win.
ASTON VILLA: Guzan 6, Vlaar 5, Clark 6, Bennett 5, Baker 6, Lowton 7, Westwood 7, Bannan 6, N’Zogbia 7, Benteke 6, Bent 6. Subs: Agbonlahor 7, Weimann 7.
NEWCASTLE: Krul 8, Debuchy 6, S.Taylor 6, Coloccini 6, Santon 7, Perch 6, Cabaye 7, Gouffran 6, Sissoko 8, Gutierrez 6, Cisse 7. Subs: Yanga-Mbiwa 7, Anita 6, Shola Ameobi 5.