Newcastle will play better in Europe this season and lose. Their first Champions League game in two decades was at times a confusing and slightly traumatic experience.
Goalkeeper Nick Pope was by far Eddie Howe’s best player. On a night when they were overrun and outplayed by AC Milan, there were few other contenders.
But somehow Newcastle didn’t lose. They didn’t give in to the waves of red and black. And so, strangely enough, their Champions League journey has begun with a valuable away point and something to build on.
This was never going to be easy. The evening was hugely significant for Newcastle and took place in one of the true cathedrals of European football. Milan may not have a standout team these days. Serie A is no longer the high-end environment it once was. But it’s still the San Siro. It still means something.
So this was a night full of challenges for Newcastle. We just expected them to be a little better, that’s all. When Dan Burn played a simple pass straight from the pitch with two minutes left, the home fans howled their derision.
Nick Pope was Newcastle’s best player as he made save after save on a pressured night
Sandro Tonali had a difficult night on his return to Milan and was substituted early
Certainly this was not the Newcastle we know. This was not the energetic top team that Howe presented in the Premier League. Here they were full of mistakes and self-harming.
They didn’t lack effort or commitment, and they still threw bodies in the way of the gunfire. They also didn’t seem particularly well organized and seemed to have arrived without much of a plan of attack.
That’s why they didn’t have a shot on goal all evening until Sean Longstaff almost scored the most unexpected shot of all time with a shot that was deflected over the line by Milan goalkeeper Marco Sportiello in stoppage time.
Sandro Tonali – a Milan player until the summer – had a particularly bad evening as the Milan midfielders ran past him in the 72 minutes Howe allowed him on the field.
When he was substituted he received applause off the field, although most of it came from the home fans. Good players are not forgotten here and one of them, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was in the stands. Ibrahimovic would have hoped for a chance here and is now 41.
For Newcastle, the first half was a completely terrible experience. The only thing going for it was that it didn’t contain any targets. Having waited so long to be back on that stage, Newcastle looked unprepared and overwhelmed. Sometimes it was something very special.
Milan – beaten 5-1 by neighbors Inter here at the weekend – reached the Champions League semi-finals last season but are far from the strongest team in Europe. In fact, they are far from the level they once occupied.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was a strong presence in the center of the park for the hosts
Tommaso Pobega forced a good save from Nick Pope early on – the first of many in the game
But here they looked like world champions, streaming forward at will. Tonali was drowning in the center of the Newcastle midfield. At one point, as he watched Milan’s former Chelsea midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek rush past him and shoot over him, he turned to Howe, as if to suggest that Newcastle’s defense had to do its job for him. They have not.
Pope was busy in the Newcastle goal. He made seven saves in the first half, including five in a hectic six-minute period around the quarter-hour mark.
Newcastle, supported by 4,000 fans lined up in the top row close to the goal they were defending, were fine for the first ten minutes or so. For a while it was a nothing game.
But once Milan got into gear, Newcastle really started to struggle. Howe’s team couldn’t stop the overloads and overlaps. They couldn’t fill the huge holes in their own midfield. At times they seemingly failed to do even the most basic work outside of possession.
Milan left midfielder Tommaso Pobega was the first to deal with Pope, shooting low from distance in the 13th minute. As the ball was returned, Pope touched a Samu Chukwueze header over the crossbar.
Former Chelsea and Arsenal striker Olivier Girod then tried to capitalize on a pinball in the penalty box, but Pope managed to smother him. As there was a sense of chaos in the Newcastle penalty area, captain Kieran Trippier pleaded for calm but it was in vain. A header from Loftus-Cheek at the far post almost gave Pobega the lead before Rade Krunic shot from 25 meters and Pope sent the ball over the goal line.
From this corner – still after 18 minutes – left-back Theo Hernandez should have scored a goal. This should have been the moment Newcastle received a real penalty.
He was completely unmolested as he headed for the goal from 10 yards, but when the ball bounced off the turf, he was just close enough for the goalkeeper to somehow direct it up and over the crossbar again. It was a good reaction except from Pope. And if the ball had reached a meter on either side – which it should have – Milan would actually have been in the lead.
Newcastle’s advances at the other end were limited. Alexander Isak occasionally dropped deep in search of possession, while Anthony Gordon on the left looked like he had what it took to trouble Milan captain Davide Calabria. However, getting enough possession was a completely different matter.
Youngster Elliot Anderson was given a chance off the bench at San Siro
Howe’s team appealed for a penalty when Longstaff went down under the slightest pressure, but soon they were almost defeated again at the other end.
Giroud might have done better than direct a Hernandez Hernandez cross past the near post before the eminently visible striker Rafael Leao moved diagonally across the field from left to right, only to fall over his own feet as He tried to hit the ball towards the goal with his backheel from seven meters.
It would have been an outrageous finish, and if you think about it, perhaps something more conventional would have made it. Pobega, meanwhile, continued to pursue the loose ball and his shot was cleared off the line by Jacob Murphy.
The second half was less daunting for Howe and his players. As the evening progressed, Milan lost a little of their energy and therefore their threat. However, they were still the dominant force and still had more chances to win the game.
Shortly after entering the field, substitute Tijjani Reijnders – who came on for Pobega on the hour – ran straight through the middle of the Newcastle defense and parried Pope flat. In fact, the shot didn’t match the sharpness of the barrel. Then, ten minutes later, another substitute, Alessandro Florenzi, crossed beautifully as he advanced from the right side of defense and Rafael Leao’s flying header sent the ball half a foot over the corner of the far post and crossbar. That would have been a goal.
The game wasn’t as hectic at the start of the final third, which suited Newcastle. Milan’s energy was electrifying at times in the early stages, but they began to resemble a team that needed a goal to get going again.
One hot early evening, Howe made some changes of his own. Miguel Almiron, Callum Wilson and young Elliot Anderson all came on to help Newcastle in the opposition half. Nevertheless, the area belonged to Milan. That hadn’t changed all night.
The statistics underlined the home team’s superiority. Pope had been Newcastle’s busiest player, while Howe’s team were never dangerous.
With ten minutes to go, two Newcastle defensive blocks in succession were required. Once again the hopes of the home fans grew. Then, with just four minutes left, Longstaff parried Christian Pulisic with another flying block. Although Newcastle stuck to their guns, their commitment could not be faulted.
FACT BOX TITLE
AC MILAN: (4-3-3) Maignan 6 (Sportiello 80 min 6); Calabria 6 (Florenzi 45 mins 6.5), Thiaw 6, Tomori 7, Hernandez 6.5; Loftus-Cheek 6.5 (Musah 71 mins 6), Krunic 6, Pobega 6.5 (Reijnders 60 mins 6.5); Chukwueze 6.5 (Pulisic 60min 6), Giroud 6, Rafael Leao 7
BOOKED: Calabria, Reijnders, Giroud
STEFANO PIOLI: 7
NEWCASTLE UNITED: (4-3-3) Pope 8.5; Trippier 6, Hive 6, Botman 6, Burn 5.5; Longstaff 6, Bruno 5.5, Tonali 5 (Anderson 72 mins 6); Murphy 6 (Wilson 62 mins 6), Isak 6 (Barnes 90 mins 6), Gordon 6 (Almiron 62 mins 5.5).
EDDIE HOWE: 5.5
REFEREE: Jose Maria Sanchez (ESP) 6