Twenty years ago, Newcastle United went to the San Siro and came away with a draw. Two decades later and, in their first Champions League away match since, Eddie Howe’s side just about managed to hang on in order to repeat the feat. A goalless draw against AC Milan lacked the scoreline of that previous 2-2 against Inter in 2003, but given the dominance of the Italian side and the sheer amount of chances the hosts wasted, this will go down as a valuable point on Newcastle’s long-awaited return to Europe’s top table.
Whether it is enough in a group that also contains Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund feels like a separate issue, and whether, in time, the Premier League side may regret not doing more to try and take three, but even asking that question is a sign of how much has changed in 20 years. This is not a great Milan team and Newcastle’s wealth is now far greater than the seven-time European champions. Although Champions League semi-finalists last season, Milan finished fifth in Serie A in the same year and on Saturday were thrashed 5-1 by Inter in the derby.
Yet this will still be a memorable trip for those who travelled from the north east, which almost became a famous one at the death. It took Newcastle until the 94th minute to have their first shot on target but it came close to stunning the San Siro, as Sean Longstaff’s drive was tipped over by substitute keeper Marco Sportiello. It would have been the ultimate smash-and-grab, with Milan finishing with 25 shots on goal and Nick Pope having to make a series of saves to earn Newcastle their point.
That was because a historic occasion for Newcastle threatened to be a horrid one at times. Jacob Murphy had a grin as wide as the San Siro as the Champions League anthem was played out across the iconic stadium and Newcastle made their return, but the visitors lived dangerously and Milan’s best opportunities fell to the one player Howe wouldn’t have wanted them to in Rafael Leao. There were clear chances in either half, first as Leao beat a string of Newcastle defenders in the box and then beat himself, tripping over his feet as he attempted a backheel, and then he met Florenzi’s cross, but the Portugal forward’s header fizzed over the bar.
It summed up Milan’s wastefulness. Stefano Piolo’s side did not struggle to create chances; rather their difficulty came from putting them away. Pope, busy on his first Champions League appearance, denied drives from Tommaso Pobega and then Rade Krunic, a chance for Samuel Chuckweze at the back post and then, impressively, Theo Hernandez’s downward header from close range. Leao’s failure of a backheel after a stunning dribble through a crowded box was followed by Pobega having his shot cleared off the line.
It was another let-off for Newcastle, whose qualification to the Champions League last season and breaking apart of the Premier League’s ‘big six’ was in part down to their ability to frustrate the best, to be organised and disciplined with their work off the ball as much as on, particularly away from home. Newcastle pressed high from Milan goal-kicks, they dropped deep in open play, but struggled to keep the ball long enough in midfield to halt the Italian side’s momentum.
Yet if the presence of Sandro Tonali, signed from Milan, now playing against them in the San Siro, was a sign of their ambitions to join Europe’s elite, that Newcastle started with Murphy, Dan Burn and Longstaff in their Champions League opener was a reminder of where they had come from when Howe took charge. For all of Newcastle’s enormous wealth that now vastly outstrips a club as prestigious as Milan, inherited primarily from the takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, but also from the Premier League, this was still a new experience for players who began their journey with Howe with the club battling relegation.
For Howe, too, this was completely new. Indeed, the 45-year-old admitted he had never even attended a Champions League match before Newcastle’s trip to Italy. There were improvements after the break from Howe’s side, spells where the visitors found a way to slow Milan down and last season’s semi-finalists became less threatening. But the danger always lingered: Tijjani Reijnders took a touch into the box, but once again the shot was sent straight down the throat of Pope. For all of the England goalkeeper’s saves, Sportiello perhaps produced the pick of them as he tipped Longstaff’s late effort over.
There is an argument that Milan are the weakest of the four sides in the ‘group of death’ and it could be that the true value of Newcastle’s point here is not known until they have faced the other big names in Group F. But this was a start and, after 20 years, a precious one for Newcastle in its own way.