Newcastle United kicked off their first Champions League campaign in 20 years with a 0-0 draw with Milan at the San Siro.
With Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain also in Group F, it is expected to be an intensely competitive battle to reach the knockout stage.
Here our writers break down the key talking points from the game (you can relive them all here).
A good draw for Newcastle and an injury concern for Milan
Eddie Howe’s side were certainly on the defensive in the first half, but they weathered Milan’s pressure and won a priceless point. They put bodies on the line when needed (six opposition shots blocked) and Nick Pope made eight excellent saves.
It’s the most competitive of the groups – before kick-off, Opta predicted there was a 31 per cent chance of Newcastle finishing first in December, a 26 per cent chance of second place, and a 24 per cent chance of third place (and a place in the European Championship). League knockout stage in February) and 19 per cent of the backs.
External appearance is by no means a prerequisite for success in this competition.
Manchester City, last season’s winners, have won just one of their six trips – and that was in the first round against Sevilla. They then drew 0-0 in the group with Dortmund and FC Copenhagen, and 1-1 in the three knockout ties against RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Likewise, Liverpool lost all three of their away matches in the 2018-19 season, when they went on to lift the trophy – 1-0 to Napoli, 2-0 to Red Star Belgrade, and 2-1 to Paris Saint-Germain.
Newcastle are not expected to go that far in the Championship, but being a successful Champions League team has a lot to do with defensive solidity.
If anything, this was a huge missed opportunity for Milan, especially after the game had started so well. Not to score, despite taking 25 shots, is a waste, and a win would have gone a long way to avenging Saturday’s 5-1 derby defeat to Inter.
Perhaps the biggest blow for them on the night was the injury that forced goaltender Mike Maignan to come off late.
But did Howe’s approach show real faith?
Given Newcastle’s level, and the difficulty of the group, it is understandable that they entered the match cautiously. This was the Milan team that reached the semi-finals of this competition last season.
(Alessandro Sabatini/Getty Images)
Newcastle played like a team that started thinking they were underdogs. They worked better in transition, always keen to keep two midfielders back, and threw themselves into blocks. But given Milan’s loss at the weekend – as well as the undoubted attacking talent that Newcastle possess – there was also a reason why Howe’s side could not take on that role.
Sean Longstaff’s late strike showed Newcastle had chances to win and their performance throughout showed they belong at this level.
In home matches, where wins are essential to progress, there should be no inferiority complex.
Pioli’s adjustment overcomes Howe’s pressure before Calabria’s exit
Stefano Pioli’s side needed that first half, as they fell behind early against Inter at the weekend and struggled to control the game from there.
A tactical adjustment this time saw right-back Davide Calabria retain the width, having played inside the field in Milan’s previous three Serie A matches, converting the 4-3-3 into a 3-2-5. This time, Milan stayed in a 4-3-3 formation with two full-backs and wide wingers, and Rade Krunic played as one pivot. Newcastle’s press was aggressive, but Eddie Howe put wingers Anthony Gordon and Jacob Murphy in a tight spot, in line with Milan’s centre-backs.
This left space for goalkeeper Mike Maignan to pass the ball to his full-backs, and Milan went out like that. He completed more passes to his full-backs (eight) than to his centre-backs (five) in the first half. Maignane also passed a long ball to striker Olivier Giroud and winger Rafael Leao, who moved inside and took Kieran Trippier with him, creating space for left-back Theo Hernandez to overlap.
The knock-on effect was that the Newcastle midfielder had to press the Milan full-back, which in turn opened up central space. Together, Newcastle’s midfield was stretched so Milan could get to their attackers from wide areas, and the home side also had them out of position to collect second balls.
Pioli’s switch from Tommaso Pobega at the weekend to Tijani Reynders provided the physicality needed to face Newcastle in central midfield.
Milan had 15 shots in the first half, more than they managed in the first 45 minutes of any Champions League match last season, when they reached the semi-finals. Seven of them scored, including one that cleared the ball off the goal line, also better than all of the European first half a year ago.
Calabria’s first-half substitution, the result of a yellow card for a foul on Gordon, derailed Milan’s attacking plan for most of the second half.
Milan failed to finish
Milan were coming off a humbling 5-1 derby defeat to Inter on Saturday night and need a positive result here to gain a foothold in the presumed ‘Group of Death’ for the 2023-24 Champions League. What happened was an entertaining, if somewhat infuriating, show.
Their 15 shots in the first half were the most they have made in Champions League competition since the 2011-12 meeting with BATE Borisov of Belarus.
The statistic loses some luster when you consider that only seven of those shots were on target, with another section aimed directly at goalkeeper Nick Pope in the central areas, but it speaks to the strange build-up of Stefano Pioli’s side. Milan have an impressive array of ball-carriers, but decisive movement in the final third was lacking for most of the evening.
Against a Newcastle side that was solid, if a bit shaky under the bright lights of the Champions League, Pioli’s men should have been out of sight after the hour mark.
The introduction of Christian Pulisic and Tijani Reynders at that stage brought more pace and attacking pressure to things, but the former’s 64th-minute effort summed things up: a clever enough dribble to gain a bit of space in a dangerous goal. area, then shot dull enough to leave the pope undisturbed.
Younes Musa’s injury-related substitution of Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the 72nd minute brought a layer of polish to Milan’s attacking machine. “They need to find corners with more intensity,” former England manager Glenn Hoddle said of the home side’s shooting.
This group has been called the Group of Death because all of the teams in it are good, but all four are prone to individual glitches.
The final score was 0-0, but expected goals (xG) figures of 2.08 for Milan and Newcastle’s 0.19 painted a fuller picture of the hosts’ wastefulness.
Sandro Tonali returns to San Siro in silence
Sandro Tonali said before the match that it took some time to adapt to life at Newcastle following his summer move from Milan, and that was certainly the case here.
After the hour mark, he attempted 10 passes, compared to 30 individual passes by his midfield partners Sean Longstaff and Bruno Guimaraes, and only 20 touches.
Having left San Siro for St James’ Park in June for around €70m (£60m; $75m), a comeback day looked like destiny, even before Newcastle’s ball was drawn to put them in Group F. , now in black and white.
This was Tonali’s first start as the left-sided No.8 in Eddie Howe’s 4-3-3 formation, having started Newcastle’s first four league games on the right, playing behind Miguel Almiron. Having been rested in the win over Brentford on Saturday, the Italian was last seen of his striker in the No.8 shirt against Brighton on September 2, leaving a gaping hole behind him as Newcastle were beaten 3-1 away from home.
Overall, Newcastle’s performance was cautious, a team wary of Milan’s threat in transition. Tonali summed up that approach – of course, he knows Milan’s strengths better than most – and this was a player worried about overcommitting, despite the temptation to get back to scoring goals.
The entire stadium applauded him when he was substituted in the 71st minute for Elliot Anderson, not only out of a feeling of thanks for his previous three seasons at the club, but also because he had done them no harm tonight.
Pulisic impresses as Musa makes his Champions League debut
Having started all four of Milan’s Serie A matches so far this season, Christian Pulisic found himself on the bench for their Champions League opener. Fans of the USA international must have fears of a repeat of his Chelsea fate in Italy, where he suffered an early blow in the 5-1 defeat to Inter on Saturday.
However, the winger looked lively when Samuel Chukwueze was substituted after 61 minutes. Although both of his shots went off target, he led all Milan players with five touches inside Newcastle’s penalty area since coming on.
Milan also gave fellow American Younes Musah his first Champions League appearance after three seasons with Spain’s Valencia, scoring in the 70th minute. The 20-year-old was brought in to help extend the game against Newcastle’s relatively static defence, operating in the half-space. Right with Pulisic to unsettle Dan Byrne and set up shop much closer to the penalty area.
Unfortunately for their team, their entry did not lead to a victory for Milan. However, their natural rapport due to their time with the national team gave Musa a clear way to make an impact while working under coach Stefano Pioli.
Aidan Harris, 16, sat on the Newcastle bench
One name Newcastle fans may not know is 16-year-old substitute goalkeeper Aidan Harris.
From Washington, a short drive south of the city, he took advantage of expanded Champions League places to be named alongside Loris Karius among the substitutes here.
With Newcastle’s Under-19s playing their AC Milan counterparts in the Champions League Youth League earlier today, it means they have moved past Max Thompson and Judd Smith on the senior bench. What is the experience?
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