Newcastle United showed tenacity and character in the second half to earn a vital point against AC Milan, but the Magpies know they must do better in the Champions League going forward.
In their first game back at Europe’s top table in 20 years, Newcastle United had just earned a draw at the home of last season’s Champions League semi-finalists. However, given the club’s current standards, Sven Botman left the San Siro unsatisfied. “‘Our performance could be better,” the defender said to NUFC TV following the goalless draw with AC Milan. “We weren’t truly ourselves for what we were capable of.”
Eddie Howe insisted after the game that Newcastle’s ‘first thought’ was not to defend too deep or protect their goal on a night Milan had a whopping 25 shots. You only had to look at how Newcastle started the game to realise that; Alexander Isak, Anthony Gordon and Jacob Murphy were aggressively camped outside AC Milan’s box when Mike Maignan took his first goal kick. Gordon even had Milan captain Davide Calabria floundering with one rapid run down the left early on that ultimately came to nothing.
However, Milan soon found their feet and bombarded Nick Pope’s goal. Newcastle, in contrast, did not have their first shot on target until the 95th minute. To truly ruffle feathers in this competition, against experienced teams like this, Newcastle have to offer more – and Howe knows it
“We had our moments in transitions going the other way,” the Newcastle boss said. “That’s where probably the quality was missing. A little bit frustrated with that, but we will look to improve.”
That vow should serve as a warning of sorts to PSG ahead of the Ligue 1 giants’ visit to St James’ Park next month. Players and staff, to a man, know they have to do a lot better in the final third to hurt a team of such quality.
A few examples immediately spring to mind from the second half on Tuesday night. How Jacob Murphy opted not to slip Kieran Trippier in down the right and instead went it alone and ballooned a shot over the bar. The flicker of an opening after the hour mark when a counter-attack appeared to be on, but Gordon’s pass asked too much of Alexander Isak and AC Milan centre-back Fikayo Tomori swept up. How Newcastle broke at pace in the 89th minute only for substitute Elliot Anderson’s low cross to be gathered easily.
At this level, against this standard of opposition, rare forays into the final third have to count, but it was not until stoppage time that Newcastle finally forced the substitute Milan ‘keeper into a save. That just so happened to be a well-struck effort from Sean Longstaff that Marco Sportiello had to tip over the bar.
It would have been a special winner, right in front of the away end up in the gods, but it can’t hide the fact that Newcastle are going to have to rediscover their shooting boots sooner rather than later and not leave it so late. “At certain moments in the final third we need to be better,” Trippier admitted.
That has become a sort of repeating theme. Following a magnificent 5-1 triumph over Aston Villa on the opening day, goals have been a little harder to come by in recent weeks, even though the black-and-whites have faced some admittedly challenging tests. Newcastle have only had five shots on goal in their last three games; Howe’s team had eight shots on goal in a single game against 10-man Liverpool last month.
However, Howe will still take immense encouragement from how his team have rediscovered the resilience that helped them break into the top four in the first place. It is certainly a lot easier to get results if you can regularly keep shutouts as Newcastle did during a 17-game unbeaten run in the Premier League last season.
As tough as the first half was on Tuesday night, the grit and spirit Newcastle showed after the break enabled the visitors to eke out a point at this iconic stadium without being anywhere near their vintage best. That is a positive sign. As Sean Longstaff told TNT Sports: “There’s a lot to come from us, especially going forward, so it’s really exciting.”
It is easy to forget, too, that this was a new experience for so many. Howe had never even watched a Champions League game live in a stadium – let alone managed in one – while eight Newcastle players made their first ever appearance in the competition, including Longstaff and fellow starters Nick Pope, Dan Burn, Jacob Murphy and Anthony Gordon. No English side has had that many debutants on this stage since Leicester City in 2016.
They will have certainly learnt a lot from their first outing. They have to before PSG rock up at St James’ next month.
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