AC Milan 0-0 Newcastle
SAN SIRO — Newcastle United were made to sweat in the simmering San Siro heat but to their credit they refused to wilt under a AC Milan onslaught.
It earned them a hard-fought point against the odds and that will be cherished on Tyneside. Improvement is clearly required and at times this was a chastening reintroduction to the Champions League but an opening night draw at least offers them a foundation to build on.
How Milan must be kicking themselves. Their 25 chances were mostly clear cut but they ran into Nick Pope in inspirational form and a Newcastle team defending as if their lives depended on it. Roared on by a raucous Curva Sud they looked the real deal until it came to the final third.
For Newcastle it was a night when they had to absorb some harsh lessons. But they stayed in the game and almost won it at the death when Sean Longstaff stung the palms of substitue goalkeeper Marco Sportiello. How the massed ranks of away fans would have celebrated that.
And the draw means they can check out of their hotels on Wednesday with mostly good, if not slightly hazy memories. All day and for most of the previous night they had thronged the city’s canalside bars, a batallion of black and white loyalists almost blinking in disbelief at the speed with which their side has surged back to Europe’s top table.
It is less than two years since an embattled Steve Bruce made the depressing admission his remit was simply to keep the club “ticking along”. Now Newcastle’s fans are ticking off the great European away days.
But the problem with parties is that they can’t go on forever and when kick off arrived in the September sun the giddiness, inevitably, subsided swiftly. Serie A’s stock may have waned since Newcastle’s last Champions League campaign 20 years ago but Milan remain a crack outfit and the San Siro is still one of football’s great venues.
Newcastle remember one of their great away days here against Inter in 2002, a night when 12,000 acclaimed Alan Shearer and a spiky, sprightly side sprinkled with liberal amounts of European experience. The competition has taken a quantum leap in the last two decades and Newcastle, despite their fast-track back into the top four, clearly have plenty of catching up to do.
In the dug out there were lessons to absorb too. Eddie Howe had decided to eschew tradition and not to train at the San Siro on Monday, supposedly to keep his tactical plans a secret from Stefano Pioli and his spies. But if handing Jacob Murphy a surprise recall was the big idea it failed to reap any tangible reward.
Murphy’s wide eyed reaction when the Champions League anthem played before kick off was the stuff of memes but Milan’s old hands neutralised him fairly easily. He wasn’t alone: Fikayo Tomori snuffed out Alexander Isak’s threat and Newcastle’s rare flashes came when Anthony Gordon found himself with space to run at Theo Hernandez.
Defensively they held firm, straining every sinew to prevent Milan from capitalising on their superiority. It was FA Cup third round stuff, throwing bodies and limbs in front of Milan’s bombardment to keep the scores level. It says much for their spirit but let’s not get it twisted, they will need to offer more to be competitive in a group laced with class acts.
In among the obvious mitigation about Newcastle’s lack of European experience there were a few recurring themes that should worry. Tonali may already have his own song at St James’ Park – it involves Moretti, spaghetti and a claimed distaste for Sunderland – but it still looks like him and Bruno Guimaraes are singing from a different hymn sheet.
The pair are Newcastle’s blue riband midfielders, two international pedigree ball players imported to give Howe’s team control against elite teams. But they have yet to gel and it says much that Guimaraes’ best game of an underwhelming campaign came on Saturday against Brentford when Tonali was absent through injury.
At the San Siro they looked at sixes and sevens, ceding space to Milan’s willing runners. And how the hosts made hay, Portuguese maverick Rafael Leao playing the conductor as part of a forward three that exhibited the sort of balance that is lacking in black and white right now.
Tonali’s night ended early on 72 minutes to an ovation from all four corners of the San Siro and songs of praise from the Curva Sud, who bear no malice at his departure. A player of his pedigree will inevitably prosper in the long run but Howe is yet to solve that particular midfield conundrum. How he does so without upsetting one or both of his biggest stars may hold the key to the success of their Champions League campaign.
That Milan weren’t able to capitalise on their almost total dominance owed so much to Pope’s infallibility. Dropped by England and stung by criticism of some of his early season performances, he was inspired here as he pulled off six superb first half saves to thwart waves of red and black attacks.
On 13 minutes he parried Tommaso Pobega’s searing drive. Seconds later Samu Chukwueze’s header was tipped wide. Then Hernandez’s shot was stopped. On and on it went as Milan peppered Pope’s goal to no avail. At one point Leao beat four Newcastle men, dumping Fabian Schar on his backside, only to fall over himself attempting a backheel.