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Can Newcastle expose Milan weakness on European return?

19 Sep 2023
Eddie Howe

Alex Keble assesses Magpies' chances in Champions League opener against Italian giants

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AC Milan v Newcastle United

Kick-off: Tuesday, 19 Sep, 17:45 BST
Milan's last result: Lost 5-1 to Inter (A)
Milan's league position: 3rd

After a 20-year absence, Newcastle United 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, tightened purse strings, and supporter unrest – it must have felt as though they would never again hear the Champions League anthem under the floodlights.

See: How much do you know about Newcastle's last Champions League side?

And so, while Newcastle are by no means here to make up the numbers, they are determined to enjoy this experience and embrace the challenge.

They will need a bit of luck to get past three European giants in Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and AC Milan – and their first piece of good fortune came on Saturday when Stefano Pioli’s side lost the Milan derby 5-1.

Supporters anticipated a tough start to the season after AC Milan signed 10 new players in a summer of upheaval, only for Pioli to mastermind three wins from three in Serie A, with some free-flowing attacking football.

But the thumping loss to Inter has brought Milan back down to earth, exposing the same brittleness to quick counter-attacks that we saw throughout the 2022/23 season, as opponents worked out how to beat Pioli’s expansive and expressive tactics.

All four of Inter’s open-play goals in the derby came in the transition, and although the return of the suspended Fikayo Tomori should shore up AC Milan’s high line, this is the area Newcastle will target.

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 at St James' Park has certainly improved. It helps that the known chink in Milan’s armour just happens to be Newcastle’s biggest strength.

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 knowhow 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.

See: Tonali: I’m not sure who my dad will support

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.

Also in this series

Part 2: Pressure off as City start defence of Champions League crown

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