AC Milan 0 Newcastle 0: Toon mark first Champions League match in 20 years with hard-fought point after dogged defending
A BOW down to the Pope is in order as nouveau riche Newcastle just about kept the Italian aristocrats at bay on their Champions League return.
Toon’s Saudi owners have made no secret of their ruthless desire to become the world’s number one club by any means necessary.
Yet the upstarts look lightyears away from mixing it with the best based on this showing against European royalty AC Milan following 20 years in the wilderness.
The Magpies arrived late on Monday evening due to weather concerns, sat twiddling their thumbs on the runway at Newcastle airport for around two hours.
And they threatened to never show up after a sobering first-half where they were battered from pillar to post and thankful to keeper Nick Pope for a string of vital saves.
Toon were all over the shop and thankful to lady luck alone for Milan not being out of sight.
But while they barely threw a punch in anger on their Champions League return, mustering just one shot on target to AC’s 25 attempts, you take the point and leg it back to Tyneside.
Their qualification hopes will rest on what they can do at St James’ Park, so this has to go down as a brilliant result.
Yet AC Milan are not a great side, special in name only these days, and Newcastle could not lay a glove on them.
Eddie Howe had never been to a Champions League game before and he would have gone through the wringer here.
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His side are just not clicking right now with this a continuation of their worrying Premier League form.
The midfield and attack are serious causes for concern, raising question marks over there summer recruitment.
But what has not been lost, and what they had in bucket loads in the San Siro when under the pump, was rock-solid resilience.
And they could have even nicked it right at the death to seal one of their most famous wins when Sean Longstaff’s stinger from the edge of the box was tipped over.
Howe made three changes after beating Brentford last weekend with winger Jacob Murphy, handed his first start of the season, the biggest surprise.
Sandro Tonali was back to face his boyhood club just 10 weeks after his £55million move from Milan while Alexander Isak was preferred to Callum Wilson up top.
This was their first trip to the San Siro since a 2-2 draw in 2003 when Alan Shearer bagged a brace.
The atmosphere was electric in the grand, crumbling old stadium. The famous Curva Sud, all decked out in black, were making a hell of a racket while the travelling 4,500 Geordies were spread across behind the opposite goal up in the gods having spent all day sinking lager in the sunshine.
On paper there was little to fear for Newcastle. And 10 minutes in AC looked there for the taking, especially down their right.
Yet six minutes later and it looked like being the longest night imaginable with Nick Pope called into action FIVE times to keep the rampant hosts at bay.
Theo Hernandez really should have scored with a free header from a corner as Milan battered Toon’s goal.
The passing was off, there were gaping holes in midfield, and any half-opening was snuffed out by themselves.
And just when it looked like they had weathered a storm, Newcastle were ripped to shreds again.
Rafael Leao danced through an invisible defence before trying to get too cute with a backheel finish and hilariously falling over himself before Jacob Murphy cleared Tommasso’s Pobega’s effort off the line.
Yet, miraculously, the Mags were still in it at the break – despite Milan having 15 shots to their two.
Howe was being found out and he had to earn his corn at the break if his side were going to have a chance of escaping with a result.
And it was a much brighter, more proactive start to the second half. Far from brilliant yet they showed intent, found a bit of snarl and limited Milan to nothing up to the hour mark.
And as AC’s passes went astra there were plenty of groans from the locals, who were still smarting following their humiliating 5-1 defeat to rivals Inter last weekend.
Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson were brought on for Murphy and Anthony Gordon.
And you have to question why Murphy was picked for this humdinger. For all his honest work, there is a reason he had not started this season – and he did little to change that perception here.
Nick Pope was back in action straight after, getting down to his left to deny sub Tijjani Reijnders weak effort from a great position having done all the hard work.
Tonali was subbed with 19 minutes remaining and the local lad was afforded a standing ovation from all four corners.
Yet that was replaced by sheer frustration when Leao, with Milan’s best chance of the second half, nodded Alessandro Florenzi’s wicked cross over from the penalty spot.
Longstaff then nearly won it in the dying seconds with Newcastle’s first shot on target but this was a priceless point following two decades in the shadows.
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