At times Nick Pope could have been forgiven for believing he was taking on Milan single-handedly but Newcastle’s goalkeeper rose to the challenge, earning Eddie Howe’s side a perhaps slightly fortuitous point.
A combination of Pope’s multiple saves, Milanese profligacy and visiting resilience ensured Newcastle departed northern Italy wearing a cloak of respectability. Not that this was quite the return to Europe’s showpiece competition Howe had so craved.
Following their 20-year Champions League absence, he had hoped his team would take the game to Milan. Instead the newfound lack of cohesion – Newcastle have lost three of their first five Premier League games – once again suggested something is not quite right on Tyneside this season. Admittedly the visitors could hardly have worked harder physically but their creative spark appears dormant.
At least the clinching of a result far better than the actual performance ensured the travelling fans could continue to enjoy themselves. “Sandro Tonali, drinks Moretti, eats spaghetti, hates Sunderland.” More than two hours before kick-off packed Metro trains heading to San Siro reverberated to the strains of Newcastle fans’ ode to their former Milan midfielder.
At one point, during a prolonged hold-up when an overflowing Metro was unable to move until some passengers alighted, a local inquired why they disliked Sunderland quite so much. The answer proved considerably longer, and more detailed, than for which the questioner had maybe bargained.
Happily such good‑humoured exchanges proved the norm but, late on Monday night, a darker side of European combat manifested itself when a 58-year-old Newcastle fan was stabbed in the back and arm. He was stable in hospital on Tuesday.
Back at the stadium where he helped his beloved Milan to win the 2022 Scudetto, Tonali started on the left of Howe’s midfield trinity and, despite swiftly fading, was heavily involved in Newcastle’s brighter early moments. Not that the visitors had it anything like their own way.
When Milan were not frustrating Newcastle’s desire to force a high tempo by slowing the play to walking pace Rafael Leão, their Portugal left‑winger, was giving Kieran Trippier an exhaustive defensive workout. Tellingly, Trippier frequently needed assistance from Sean Longstaff, Newcastle’s right-sided midfielder.
Although Leão ran through a repertoire of impressive tricks he, too, often flattered to deceive and, typically, his first shot, delivered after he cut inside on his right foot, was directed straight at Pope.
Stefano Pioli’s side had been stung by the 5-1 humiliation against Internazionale on Saturday and, spotting Newcastle’s concentration wavering, they rapidly changed pace, forcing Pope into a series of fine saves to deny Tommaso Pobega, Samuel Chukwueze, Olivier Giroud and Rade Krunic in fairly swift succession.
Little had been seen of a Newcastle attack featuring an extremely well‑marked Alexander Isak at centre-forward. Howe had preferred Isak to Callum Wilson but the Sweden striker was repeatedly second-guessed by the excellent Fikayo Tomori. Ditto Anthony Gordon by Davide Calabria.
It hardly helped Isak’s cause that Milan’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek had emerged as the dominant central midfielder, eclipsing Bruno Guimarães. Small wonder Howe could be seen balancing a notepad on a knee and scribbling frantic jottings from his technical area vantage point.
The good news for Newcastle’s manager was that, after a shaky few weeks, Pope had returned to form and was evidently relishing keeping Milan at bay. Moreover, with Giroud shooting inches wide and Leão falling over his feet with the goal at his mercy after brilliantly beating a trio of tacklers but then inexplicably attempting an audacious backheel when a simple shot would have done, Pioli’s side could not make their superiority count.
By half-time Milan had directed seven shots on target but still failed to wound their English guests.
Although Gordon, who never seemed quite on the same wavelength as Dan Burn down the left, looked pleased to see Calabria booked and promptly replaced with Alessandro Florenzi, it did not take long for Florenzi to dribble through Newcastle’s defence. He shot fractionally wide but Milan were becoming jaded and Mike Maignan was required to push Jacob Murphy’s cross-shot clear.
Murphy and Gordon made way for Wilson and Miguel Almirón but while Howe’s team appeared physically stronger, with Trippier coming into his own, as the game wore on they continued to lack the intensity and invention of old. With Tonali and Guimarães still to gel, Elliot Anderson replaced the Italian, who departed to an evocative ovation from his former public.
There was still time for Leão to miss a splendid headed chance after Florenzi’s fabulous cross before Newcastle almost enjoyed an unlikely last word. When Longstaff capitalised on Milanese fatigue to unleash a dangerous rising, 96th-minute shot, Geordie glory beckoned. But Marco Sportiello, making his debut in Milan’s goal following Maignan’s second‑half injury, tipped it to safety.