Conor Hourihane produced two moments of the highest quality as Aston Villa beat Newcastle 2-0 at Villa Park.
The Republic of Ireland midfielder gave Villa the lead with a delightful free kick in the 32nd minute, before providing an excellent cross from another free kick for Anwar El Ghazi to double the hosts’ lead with a header four minutes later.
Hourihane has repeatedly demonstrated his proficiency at set pieces for club and country, and it his dead ball ability which decided this match.
There were few clear cut chances of note in the opening half hour, but DeAndre Yedlin’s needless foul on the excellent Jack Grealish on the edge of the box proved to be costly.
Hourihane stood over the free kick on the left side of the Newcastle area.
The Irish international played a clever one-two with Grealish to switch his angle, before curling a sumptuous shot around the wall and past a static Martin Dubravka to make it 1-0.
Hourihane’s goal was encouraging given that Dubravka will be between the posts when the Boys in Green travel to Slovakia for March’s Euro 2020 play-off.
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Four minutes later, Villa doubled their lead.
Hourihane whipped a teasing ball into the Magpies boss, which El Ghazi converted from close range to stun Steve Bruce’s visitors.
Newcastle improved considerably after the break, but were unable to find a way back into the gamein a second half that boasted a plethora of chances.
With 13 minutes remaining, Hourihane picked out Wesley with a perfectly measured low cross across the box, but the Brazilian striker shot straight at Dubravka from six yards.
Villa held on for a much-needed win which lifts the newly-promoted Birmingham club up to 15th in the table, a point behind Monday’s opponents.
It was an excellent performance from Hourihane, who registered a goal, an assist, and 10 crosses, including five from open play.
The midfielder also created three chances and completed 42 passes with an accuracy of just under 98%.
Hourihane came back to haunt Newcastle boss Bruce, who brought the player to Villa from Barsnley for just £1m in 2017.
“I’ve seen Conor do that so many times,” Bruce said afterwards.
“He’s got great accuracy and power in his delivery.
“All of the talk has been of McGinn but, I have to tell you, for £1m, Hourihane isn’t too bad either!”
There is a sense that Hourihane is perhaps undervalued and underused at times at Villa Park.
He has been in and out of Dean Smith’s team, playing no part in five of Villa’s 13 Premier League games to date.
The 28-year-old played just five minutes against Arsenal, 17 against Liverpool and 19 against Crystal Palace.
In fact, Monday’s match against the Magpies was only his fifth league start of the season, and his first since October 19th, when he was dropped for Villa’s clash against Manchester City despite producing a good performance in the club’s previous match against Brighton.
It was also just the second time the Corkman has played 90 minutes in the top flight this season.
Hourihane has still managed to register two goals and two assists in those eight appearances.
That’s as many goals as Grealish, Trezeguet and Douglas Luiz, and just one less than John McGinn and El Ghazi.
Only Grealish,(four) and El Ghazi (three) have provided more assists, but Grealish has featured in 11 matches, and El Ghazi has appeared in 12.
More impressively, Hourihane has been involved in more Villa goals then any other player currently at the club since the start of last season.
In that time, the central midfielder has recorded nine goals and 13 assists for the club, excluding the play-offs (in which he scored a stunning goal against local rivals West Brom in the semi-final).
According to Villa Analytics, Hourihane has scored the most free kick goals in England’s top two leagues since the start of 2017/18 season.
Given the speedy, direct nature of Villa attackers Grealish and McGinn, Smith’s side are likely to win plenty of free kicks around the opposition’s box.
Hourihane has shown that he can punish teams from those situations, as well as create chances from open play.
“With Conor’s wand of a left foot he ends up scoring one and makes another, so I’m really pleased,” Villa manager Smith said after Monday’s win.
“He’s got a goal threat. He wasn’t happy when I left him out of the game at Manchester City. I understand why but it’s a squad game and I have hard decisions to make.
“I knew we would spend an awful lot of that game defending, and for this game I knew we would have a lot of the ball. He’s answered me in the best way, so I’m really pleased for him.”
Hourihane will now be hoping to cement his place in the starting lineup for club and country.
Villa are facing a tough period of fixtures, with matches against Manchester United, Chelsea, Leicester City, Sheffield United and Liverpool (Carabao Cup quarter-final) on the horizon.
Hourihane is likely to be given another chance to impress when Villa visit Old Trafford next Monday, and it will be up to the Irish midfielder to deliver.
He’s already shown that his delivery is of the highest quality.