After a 20-year absence, Newcastle are welcomed back to the Champions League with the group of death. Fans won’t mind that one bit. Throughout two decades of turbulence - of relegations, tight purse strings, and supporter unrest – it must have felt as though they would never again hear the Champions League anthem under the floodlights. It’s a baptism of fire for Eddie Howe, managing in his first European match, but after Newcastle’s 1-0 victory over Brentford at the weekend, the mood has certainly improved.
We all saw what Newcastle did to Aston Villa in a 5-1 win on the opening weekend, when Unai Emery’s high line was repeatedly exposed. There is a decent chance that Newcastle can do something similar in Italy, capitalising on a tactical weakness as well as a possible psychological one after a damaging derby defeat. Nevertheless this is a huge challenge for Newcastle, who simply cannot match the experience and know-how of last year’s Champions League semi-finalists.
What’s more, Milan have enough firepower across the front line to scare the visitors, with star player Rafael Leao now counter-balanced with Christian Pulisic on the other side. Both wingers have worked well with Olivier Giroud, who has four goals and two assists from his first four Serie A matches of the season. His pre-existing relationship with Pulisic from their Chelsea days is proving to be a shortcut for Pioli – and something Howe will have to think carefully about.
It should be a close encounter, although Newcastle have the upper hand in central midfield after snatching their opponents’ best player over the summer. Sandro Tonali returns to his old club with detailed knowledge of what makes Milan tick – and how to stop them. If Milan are still shell-shocked from the Inter defeat, Tonali should be ready to rub salt in their wounds and give Newcastle the good start they badly need, if they are to qualify for the Round of 16.