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Monday, October 2, 2023

Newcastle scrape a point from the San Siro on their Champions League return – The Irish Times

AC Milan 0 Newcastle United 0

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 opening Champions League point.

A combination of Pope’s multiple saves, Milanese profligacy and visiting resilience ensured that Newcastle departed northern Italy wearing a cloak of respectability yet this was not quite the return to Europe’s showpiece competition that Howe had so craved.

Following their 20-year absence from this competition, he had hoped his team would take the game to Milan. Instead the newfound lack of cohesion, which has led to Newcastle losing three of their first five Premier League games, once again suggested something is not quite right on Tyneside this season.

At least the travelling fans seemed to be enjoying themselves. More than two hours before kick-off packed trains heading to San Siro reverberated to the repetitive strains of Newcastle fans singing in tribute to their former Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali.

At one point, during a prolonged holdup when an overflowing train was unable to move until some passengers alighted, a local asked a black-and-white-shirted visitor why his friends hated Sunderland quite so much. The answer proved considerably longer, and more detailed, than the questioner had perhaps bargained for.

Happily such good-humoured exchanges proved the norm but, on Monday night, a darker side of Champions League fan interaction manifested itself when a 58-year-old Newcastle fan suffered a late-night ambush and 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 ultimately fading, was invariably at the heart of Newcastle’s brighter early moments.

Not that the visitors had it anything like their own way. When Milan were not stymieing Newcastle’s desire to force a high tempo by slowing the play down to walking pace, Rafael Leão their left-winger, was giving Kieran Trippier an exhaustive defensive workout. Tellingly, the full-back frequently required assistance from Sean Longstaff, Newcastle’s right-sided midfielder.

Although Leão ran through quite 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 their 5-1 humiliation against Internazionale last weekend and, spotting Newcastle’s concentration wavering, they rapidly changed pace, forcing Pope to make a series of fine saves to deny Tommaso Pogba, Samu 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 in his starting XI 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 first half’s most dominant central midfielder, eclipsing Newcastle’s Bruno Guimarães. Small wonder Howe could be seen balancing a notepad on a knee and scribbling frantic jottings from his vantage point on the edge of the technical area.

The good news for Newcastle’s manager was that, following a shaky start to the season, 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 markers but then inexplicably attempting an audacious back-heel 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 Premier League guests. With Calabria booked late in the opening half Pioli’ took the precaution of replacing him with Alessandro Florenzi at the interval.

It did not take long for Florenzi to dribble through Newcastle’s defence and shoot fractionally wide but Milan had started to appear a little jaded and Mike Maignan was finally required to make a save, pushing Jacob Murphy’s cross-shot to safety.

Murphy and Gordon soon made way for Wilson and Miguel Almirón but although Howe’s team looked significantly stronger as the game wore on they continued to lack last season’s intensity and invention. With Tonali and Guimarães still to gel in midfield, Elliot Anderson replaced the Italian, who departed to quite an ovation from his former fans.

From the bench, Tonali watched Leão miss a splendid headed chance following Florenzi’s fabulous cross before Newcastle almost enjoyed the last word.

When Longstaff took advantage of Milanese fatigue to unleash a dangerous rising shot in the sixth minute of stoppage time, Howe looked set to celebrate the unlikeliest of wins. Instead, Marco Sportiello, making his debut in Milan’s goal following a second-half injury to Maignan tipped it over the bar. – Guardian

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