Newcastle United opened their first Champions League campaign in 20 years with a 0-0 draw with AC Milan at the San Siro.
They are also in Group F with Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain and it promises to be a tough competition to reach the knockout stages.
Here, our writers break down the key talking points from the game (you can relive it all here).
A good draw for Newcastle and an injury concern for Milan
Eddie Howe’s side were undoubtedly on the back foot in the first half but withstood Milan’s pressure to claim a priceless point. They put their bodies on the line when needed (six shots blocked) and Nick Pope made an outstanding eight saves.
It’s the most competitive of the groups – before kick-off Opta predicted a 31 per cent chance of Newcastle finishing top in December, a 26 per cent chance of second, a 24 per cent chance of third place (and a place in Europe’s League knockout stages in February) and a 19 per cent chance of finishing at the back.
Outdoor form is by no means a condition for success in this competition.
Last season’s winners, Manchester City, have won just one of their six on the road – and that came on the opening day against Sevilla. They then drew 0-0 in the group at Dortmund and FC Copenhagen and 1-1 in three knockout games against RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Similarly, Liverpool lost all three of their away group games in 2018-19 when they were chasing the trophy – 1-0 at Napoli, 2-0 at Red Star Belgrade and 2-1 at Paris Saint-Germain.
Newcastle aren’t expected to go this far in the tournament, 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 when the game started so well. Not to score despite conceding 25 shots is a waste and a win would pay for Saturday’s 5-1 derby defeat to Inter.
Perhaps the bigger blow for them on the night is the injury that forced goalkeeper Mike Maignan into a late withdrawal.
But did Howe’s approach show true faith?
Given Newcastle’s form and the difficulty of the group, it is understandable that they entered the game cautiously. This was the Milan team that reached the semi-finals of this competition last season.
(Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)
Newcastle played like a team that started thinking they were underdogs. They worked best in transition, making sure to always hold two linebackers and rush into blocks. But given Milan’s defeat at the weekend – as well as the undoubted attacking talent at Newcastle’s disposal – there was also reason Howe’s team should not take on the role.
Sean Longstaff’s late strike showed Newcastle had chances to win and their performance showed they belong at that level.
There must be no inferiority complex in home matches where wins are needed to advance.
Pioli’s trick is better than Howe’s press before leaving Calabria
Stefano Pioli’s home side needed a first half – they fell behind early against Inter at the weekend and struggled to control the game.
Right-back Davide Calabria, who played inside in Milan’s previous three Serie A matches, remained the tactical upgrade this time around, turning his 4-3-3 into a 3-2-5. This time Milan stayed in a 4-3-3 with wide full-backs and wings and played Rade Krunic as the only pivot. Newcastle’s pressing was aggressive, but Eddie Howe placed wingers Anthony Gordon and Jacob Murphy in tight, in line with Milan’s centre-backs.
This left space for goalkeeper Mike Maignan to chip passes to his full-backs and thus Milan got out. He completed more passes to his full-backs (eight) than to his centre-backs (five) in the first half. Maignan also kicked long to striker Olivier Giroud and winger Rafael Lea, who moved inside and took Kieran Trippier with him, creating space for left-back Theo Hernandez to cover.
The knock-on effect was that Newcastle’s central midfielder had to press Milan’s full-back, which in turn opened up space centrally. Together, Newcastle’s midfield was stretched to allow Milan to get to their forwards from wide areas and also keep them out of position to collect second balls.
Pioli’s swap of Tommaso Pobega for Tijjani Reijnders at the weekend offered the necessary physicality to tackle Newcastle in midfield.
Milan had 15 first-half shots, more than they managed in the opening 45 minutes of any Champions League game last season as they reached the semi-finals. Seven of those were on target, including one that forced a goal-line clearance – also better than all of their European first halves a year ago.
A Calabria substitution at half-time, which resulted in a yellow card following a foul on Gordon, disrupted Milan’s attacking plan for much of the second half.
Milan were thumped by Inter 5-1 in the derby on Saturday night and needed a positive result to secure their place in the predicted ‘Group of Death’ of the 2023-24 Champions League. What transpired was an amusing – if slightly infuriating – display.
Their 15 first-half goals were the most they have managed in a Champions League competition since a match against BATE Borisov of Belarus in 2011-12.
The stat takes a bit of a shine when you consider that only seven of those shots were on target, with another portion aimed directly at ‘keeper Nick Pope in central areas, but it speaks to the strange construction of Stefano Pioli’s side. Milan have a fantastic collection of ball carriers, but decisive action in the final third was lacking for most of the evening.
Against a Newcastle side that was solid, if a little shaky under the brighter lights of the Champions League, Pioli’s men should have been out of sight an hour ago.
The introductions of Christian Pulisic and Tijjani Reijnders at that point brought another injection of pace and attacking drive into things, but the former’s 64th-minute effort summed it all up: a dribble smart enough to carve out a yard of space in the danger area. area, then a shot blunt enough to leave the Pope unchallenged.
The injury-forced substitution of Yunus Musah for Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the 72nd minute took some of the shine from Milan’s attacking machine. “They need to find corners with a little more power,” former England coach Glenn Hoddle assessed the home team’s shooting.
It’s called the group of death because all the teams in it are good, but all four are prone to weird glitches.
The final score was 0-0, but expected goals (xG) of 2.08 for Milan and 0.19 for Newcastle gave a more complete picture of the hosts’ wastefulness.
Sandro Tonali brings back a subdued San Siro
Sandro Tonali said before the game that it took a long time to settle into Newcastle after his summer move from Milan, and that was certainly the case here.
After the hour he had attempted 10 passes compared to 30 for his midfield partners Sean Longstaff and Bruno Guimaraes and had just 20 touches.
Having left San Siro for St James’ Park in June for around €70m (£60m; US$75m), the return day felt fateful, even before Newcastle’s ball had been drawn to be included in the group F. Future Captain in Black and Red, now in Black and White.
It was Tonali’s first start as a left-sided eight in Eddie Howe’s 4-3-3, starting Newcastle’s first four league games on the right, playing for Miguel Almiron. The Italian was rested after Saturday’s home win over Brentford and last saw his No8 shirt in action against Brighton on September 2, leaving a gap as Newcastle suffered a 3-1 away defeat.
As a whole, Newcastle’s performance was cautious, a side wary of Milan’s danger in transition. Tonali encapsulated that approach – of course, knowing Milan’s strengths more than most – and was a player to be feared overcommitting, despite the allure of a goal return.
The whole stadium gave him a standing ovation when he was substituted for Elliot Anderson on 71 minutes – a feeling not only of thanks for his previous three seasons at the club, but of having done them no harm tonight.
Pulisic offers a spark as Musah makes his Champions League debut
After starting all four of Milan’s Serie A games so far this season, Christian Pulisic found himself on the bench for their Champions League opener. However, fans of the United States international should fear a repeat of Chelsea’s fate in Italy as he suffered an early knock during Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing of Inter.
However, the winger looked lively when he replaced Samuel Chukwueze in the 61st minute. Although both of his shots went wide, he has led all Milan players with five touches inside the Newcastle box since coming on.
Milan also gave his teammate Yunus Musah his Champions League debut after three seasons with Spain’s Valencia, subbing off after 70 minutes. The 20-year-old was brought on to help stretch the game against Newcastle’s relatively stationary defence, working in right center half with Pulisic to unsettle Dan Burn and set up shop much closer to the box.
Unfortunately for their side, their entries did not lead to a Milan winner. However, their secondary connection thanks to their time together with the national team has given Musah a clear way to make an impact as he works his way into coach Stefano Pioli’s rotation.
Aidan Harris, a 16-year-old player on the Newcastle bench
One name Newcastle fans may not be familiar with is their 16-year-old back-up goalkeeper Aidan Harris.
From Washington, just south of the city, he benefited from the expanded Champions League benches to be named among the substitutes here alongside Loris Karius.
With Newcastle’s under-19s playing their Milan counterparts in the UEFA Youth League earlier in the day, it means he will bypass Max Thompson and Jude Smith on the senior bench. What an experience.