Positivity, squad depth and Bruno back to best: Newcastle in good shape for Champions League return

Newcastle's Bruno Guimaraes celebrates during the win over Brentford
Bruno Guimaraes returned to form in the win over Brentford as talks over a new contract move forward - EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Peter Powell

It has been 20 years since Newcastle United last played a Champions League game but manager Eddie Howe is not content just to take part in European football’s most prestigious club competition.

Despite being drawn in a tough group alongside AC Milan, Paris St-Germain and Borussia Dortmund, Newcastle intend to reach the knockout rounds.

Telegraph Sport assesses how well prepared they are to balance the glamour ties of Europe with their own domestic ambitions.

Settling domestic concerns before European adventure

After three successive defeats, Newcastle were off to a sluggish start in the Premier League and pressure was building ahead of the home game against Brentford. Howe admitted after the game that his main emotion was “relief” and the importance of getting three points against a strong and previously unbeaten domestic rival cannot be underestimated.

There was some tension inside the stadium and Newcastle were not at their best, but they found a way to win and that was impressive in the circumstances. It also means they travel to Italy in a more confident mood, which will allow them to play with more freedom against a team who lost 5-1 in the Milan derby to Inter over the weekend.

“I think we will enjoy it a little bit more because we have won,” said Howe. “There is some positivity returning to the squad. The players need to be able to play with freedom to be at their best.

“The crowd did their best to help us to do that against Brentford, they understood our position and our start to the season. We are really pleased we could repay their faith in us with a win. And that means Tuesday’s game looks like a different game for us, hopefully one we can enjoy. But, as ever, we are going there to show our best version of ourselves and to try and win.

“I will be immensely proud to lead the team out. I’m excited for the players, I’m excited for the supporters. It’s going to be a great moment for us all.”

Squad depth

Newcastle’s summer recruitment has been questioned, mainly because they decided to spend £60 million on two young full-backs, Tino Livramento and Lewis Hall, who have not started a game yet.

But what they did do was vastly improve the depth of the squad, which meant that Sandro Tonali, Alexander Isak and Miguel Almiron could all be rested against Brentford. The development of academy graduate Elliot Anderson also meant that injuries to Joelinton and Joe Willock, who will both be sidelined for several weeks with knee and Achilles injuries respectively, can be covered far more effectively than last term.

Sandro Tonali
Sandro Tonali was rested against Brentford ahead of Newcastle's clash with his former club, AC Milan, in the Champions League - AMA/Getty Images/Matthew Ashton

Tonali and Isak are both set to start in Milan, but there was more than £200 million-worth of playing talent on the bench against Brentford, which is evidence of how much the squad has improved since the Saudi Arabian-led takeover in October 2021. Newcastle are going to have to rest and rotate far more this season and the Brentford win is a big step forward in the team’s evolution.

Return to form of Bruno Guimaraes

The Brazil international has been out of sorts, possibly distracted by a lack of progress on a new contract despite months of talks, perhaps feeling a little bruised by perceived criticism of his and the team’s performances.

Telegraph Sport understands that co-owner Amanda Staveley personally intervened to get the contract talks to progress and a new deal is close to being signed. It was her “human touch” that appears to have broken the deadlock, when she made it clear to the player how much he is valued. A big pay rise also helps of course.

Bruno was superb against Brentford. Newcastle needed their best player to get back into the groove and the signs were encouraging.

Plenty of time to prepare

Howe always sticks to the line that he is only focused on the next game, but that is not strictly true as he revealed he has been working out a way to try to beat AC Milan for several weeks. The Newcastle manager spent Sunday watching their defeat by Inter and, with players refreshed and rested, Newcastle will travel to Italy with a game plan to win rather than contain their hosts.

“A lot of our work has to be done in preparation before now,” Howe said. “You can’t suddenly switch on to Milan with two days’ notice. We have been working on different things and increasing our workload in preparation.

“That’s the beauty of the international break, you have two weeks to prepare, not for one game but for a lot of games coming in this run. Hopefully we can get that right.”

Integral to that plan will be Italy international Tonali, who was signed from AC Milan for £53 million this summer. “We were only going to use Sandro in an emergency [against Brentford],” Howe added. “That was partly because we wanted to give him the best possible chance of being ready for Tuesday’s game.”