MILAN: It was something far from pretty, that will live long in the memory despite being so forgettable.
Newcastle United ground out their first match back in the UEFA Champions League with grit, will and luck. However, Tuesday night was a moment in history for all associated with the Magpies to be forever imprinted in memory.
This was about more than just a match, and a hard-earned away point. It was a celebration — a coming together of tormented souls, a pilgrimage to one of world football’s most iconic arenas, a journey not made for two decades.
In 2003, a little under 5 percent of the total population of Newcastle made the 2,000-mile round trip to see Sir Bobby Robson’s men almost snatch victory from Inter Milan, with club legend Alan Shearer netting twice. The 4,000 Geordies in the San Siro had no goals to cheer on this occasion, but all left with smiles as wide as the Tyne as Newcastle ground their way to a 0-0 draw against last season’s semifinalists AC Milan.
It was a million miles away from the statement performance Eddie Howe had foretold of in his weather-delayed pre-match huddle in the bowels of Milan’s great stadium. The fluency of old was absent, transitions littered with errors and, in truth, could have played on all night without scoring. But many of the criticisms levelled at Howe’s team have been answered.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, I didn’t think the draw was luck,” said Howe.
“We were slight disappointed with how we played with the ball tonight but there’s a lot of different reasons for that.
“Our first thought wasn’t to defend deep or to protect our goal, far from it, that’s not how we set up our team. We tried to be aggressive, we tried to get to the Milan center-backs and goalkeeper in their build-up phase. Mixed success with that, I thought; we were a little bit loose in our defending in that first half, hence the number of chances Milan created, but we were very good in and around our box, hence why we got the point.
“I thought the crowd were very good for Milan tonight, it was a hostile atmosphere and the players had to adjust to that which is why you can’t underestimate the performance and the point we get,” Howe continued. “It will look better and better as time goes on because it was a new experience for a lot of people tonight, me included. Hopefully we can grow from this into the tournament but I’ve got to praise the players defensive qualities tonight. We know we can be better with the ball but hopefully that comes.”
The Italian press had gone big on United not being “worthy” or “deserving” of a place in the Champions League this season. The argument for that is steeped in elitist protectionism. No one has questioned Italian football clubs making up the numbers in European competitions in recent years.
While attacking intent was lacking, defensive resolve was not. Skipper Kieran Trippier was chief protagonist. He, with goalkeeper Nick Pope, repelled wave after wave of Milan assaults. Pope stretched every inch of his frame to deny Rafael Leao et al. Trippier, so often England and Gareth Southgate’s defensive problem solver, was the calming influence the Magpies needed on a sizzling night in Lombardy.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Howe said of England international Pope.
“He was excellent against Brentford although he didn’t have a lot to do and his all-round game was at his highest level. It’s no coincidence. Two big displays and two clean sheets from him, which is absolutely crucial to us. He was a huge part of our success last year and no doubt he’ll be the same this year.”
Honorable mentions must go to Fabian Schar, Sean Longstaff and Bruno Guimaraes, all of whom held together United’s resolve.
A point on its own will not ensure qualification, but this was more a point made in progress as a football club.
Two years ago Milan were waltzing to a Serie A title, while Newcastle were facing relegation to the Championship. With new ownership, staff, players and direction, the handbrake has been removed — fans trekked to the the north of Italy with inhibitions released. The last decade and a half in particular have been difficult, with European football a distant memory.
That’s why what happened on the pitch last night was essentially a side show. This was the Geordie nation making old acquaintances, remembering paths worn and reminding the European elite that, under the Public Investment Fund, this club is ready to compete at the top table again.