Newcastle fans arriving in northern Italy on Monday were greeted by the chaotic combination of a public transport strike and the start of Milan fashion week. Yet as Geordies dressed in black and white replica shirts joined international fashionistas in queueing for increasingly elusive and expensive taxis, Eddie Howe and his players remained immune from the frustration surrounding the preamble to the team’s long‑awaited Champions League return.
Football managers are prone to control-freak tendencies and Howe’s determination to keep the merest hint of chance, let alone chaos, at bay is such that he routinely clocks in at St James’ Park at 9.30am on Saturdays for 3pm Premier League fixtures. Given that even the meticulously prepared Rafael Benítez used to turn up around midday for such games, Howe’s obsession with his job – and getting it right – is evident.
This mindset dictates that Newcastle’s first Champions League match for two decades was always going to be a very big deal for Howe. It explains why he asked Uefa for special permission to train on Tyneside on Monday afternoon, ignoring the convention that away teams limber up at their opponents’ stadium the night before showpiece European games.
Newcastle’s manager feared Milan might spy on his dress rehearsal, gaining an advantage before Tuesday night’s opening group game. Having received Uefa’s blessing, the team did not land in Italy until early Monday evening, remaining immune to the increasingly febrile mood in a city where Newcastle fans can be heard sporadically chanting: “Have you ever seen a Mackem in Milan?”
Heightened Italian emotions stem from the Rossoneri’s 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Internazionale last weekend. After refusing to apologise, Stefano Pioli, Milan’s manager, found himself at the eye of a storm, with La Gazzetta dello Sport declaring: “It was five slaps, one after another.” Undeterred, Pioli retorted: “You should only apologise when you do something wrong on purpose.”
The Italian media enjoy greater access to players and managers than their English counterparts so Pioli had no option but to grit his teeth as Milan stuck to their pre‑European assignment routine and threw their doors open to stage a training session alongside another journalistic inquisition on Monday.
It will not be lost on Howe that Milan, who are third in Serie A, had won their previous three games. Or that they possess an outstanding left winger in Portugal’s Rafael Leão. His duel with Kieran Trippier promises to be a key subplot of a match expected to feature a quartet of former Chelsea players in Fikayo Tomori, Ruben Loftus‑Cheek, Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud.
The biggest reunion involves Sandro Tonali. The Italy midfielder, who helped Milan secure their first Scudetto for 11 years in 2022, departed for Newcastle for £55m this summer and should start after recovering from a thigh strain. Much on Tuesday night, and indeed for the remainder of Newcastle’s season, may hinge on the evolution of Tonali’s currently strained central‑midfield partnership with Bruno Guimarães.
Howe’s players will kick off at San Siro buoyed by the 1-0 victory against Brentford on Saturday, that slightly unconvincing win having ended a run of three Premier League defeats in succession.
“I think we’ll enjoy Milan a little bit more now,” said a manager whose side must also face Paris Saint‑German and Borussia Dortmund in the group stage. “I haven’t been calm for the last three or four weeks because this job is my life.
“This is everything, so I’m giving everything to try to be successful and when things aren’t going quite to plan I’m very emotional. But hopefully now we’ve won again we can enjoy Italy. We’re intending to show the best version of ourselves.”
Newcastle’s manager normally sticks to the stock managerial “one game at a time” mantra but admits he has been burning the midnight oil ever since the draw for the Champions League group stages were made at the end of last month. “You can’t suddenly switch on to Milan with two days’ notice,” Howe said. “We worked on different things and increased our workload in preparation during the international break.”
As the final whistle blows at San Siro, Howe will hope to have presided over a performance Sir Bobby Robson would have treasured. “I’ll be immensely proud to be the first manager to lead the team out in the Champions League since Sir Bobby in 2003,” Newcastle’s latest manager said. “I’m excited for the players, I’m excited for the supporters. It’s going to be a great moment for us all.”