Newcastle fans drank Milan dry but players receive sobering experience on Champions League return

Alexander Isak grimaces
Alexander Isak did not get a sniff of goal all game - MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

Newcastle United will look at the result and say it was a job well done, but as satisfying as it was to secure a point away from home in their first Champions League game for 20 years, this was more of a reality check than anything else.

The Magpies were dogged and determined. They were defiant, right until the final seconds when Sean Longstaff had their first and only shot on target, which also forced their first and only corner.

Their travelling supporters roared, sang and applauded their team off the pitch after the final whistle and the players deserved that for their effort. Because it took every last ounce of energy they had to come away with something in a game in which they were inferior.

Newcastle’s best players were all defensive. The ones who impressed, goalkeeper Nick Pope. right back Kieran Trippier and centre backs Sven Botman and Fabian Schar.

That tells its own story, because none of their attacking players and neither of their supposedly elite-level midfielders, Sandro Tonali and Bruno Guimaraes, had nights to remember other than taking part in such a landmark fixture.

Sandro Tonali applauds the crowd
Sandro Tonali was greeted warmly on his return to San Siro but was anonymous on the pitch - Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

This was a hard evening for Newcastle, the toughest of introductions to what it takes to compete against one of European football’s grand old clubs.

It was like a first day at high school, where the big boys rough you up in the playground and tease you for what you are wearing. It was an evening of harsh lessons and exposed the quality of certain players, especially those in offensive positions.

Yet, despite all of it, Newcastle not only survived, they somehow managed to come away with a result that is far better for them than it is for AC Milan.

It is often when the learning curve is sharpest that you get the most benefits. That must be how manager Eddie Howe will look at this.

“We know we will need to be better using the ball and in an attacking sense,” he said. “But I don’t think it is right to focus on the negatives tonight. I really don’t.

“I don’t think we were lucky, that’s not right. I think some of our defensive play was superb and Nick Pope was outstanding.

“This was always going to be a huge learning experience for us and for me as a manager. We always want to improve, win or lose and we will be better after this I’m sure.”

Pope dives to his right to save
At times Nick Pope singlehandedly held Newcastle at bay - Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

If the Magpies wondered if they were ready to beat some of the best sides on the continent, this was the moment they realised how much they will need to improve to do so.

Newcastle were outplayed, outmanoeuvered, but not outfought. On this occasion, that was enough to write a positive ending to the first chapter of this European adventure. Results are all that matter in the end.

They managed to frustrate AC Milan enough, largely because of an inspired performance from Pope and some woeful finishing from the Italian side.

But they will not get away with playing this badly again in this competition. Other teams will manage to take at least one of the 25 chances they created. That is how many AC Milan failed to convert as they exposed Newcastle in open play and at set pieces.

Pope made eight saves in the game, five excellent ones inside the opening 20 minutes. In the first half, the bewitching Rafael Leao danced around four players inside the area, but rather than shoot, tried a showboating backheel finish and tripped over his own feet instead. In the second half, his diving header flashed just wide of the top corner when he should have found the net.

By that time, Newcastle were constantly defending with at least nine men behind the ball and could not manage to do anything when they counter-attacked. AC Milan’s defence, where England international Fikayo Tomori and Germany’s Malick Thiaw were superb, snuffed out Newcastle’s threat as easily as a bucket of water extinguishes a candle.

As for the midfield, Tonali was anonymous on his return to AC Milan, either caught up in the emotion of playing against a team he did not really want to leave in the summer or still unable to work out where he fits into his new team.

It was never going to be easy for Newcastle to just pitch up and play on this sort of stage again after 20 years away and a decade since they played their last competitive European tie in the Europa League.

Three Newcastle fans have fun in the sun with their shirts off
Newcastle fans drank Milan dry - PA Photo

It was a sobering experience in many ways, even if the travelling fans drank Milan dry, but it was one they survived and will surely be better for. As an attacking force, Newcastle were limp and listless, but they were so diligent and brave in defence, you cannot be too critical.

Newcastle are back in the Champions League and they have already put a point on the board. When the dust settles, that is a pretty positive outcome for a club that was fighting against relegation to the Championship less than 18 months ago.