Newcastle fall short quality-wise in decider but CL appetiser provides invaluable pre-elite experience

Lewis Oldham
Newcastle vs AC Milan
Dejected Newcastle United players.

Newcastle United ran out of steam when it mattered, but they can hold their head high following their heartbreaking Champions League decider…


After being overpowered by Ange-ball over the weekend, Eddie Howe required a significant response from his Newcastle United players if they were to give themselves any hope of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages.

Since PIF took the reins at Newcastle, we have grown accustomed to special nights at St James’ Park and the hosts were determined to earn their best yet on Tuesday evening.

With the help of an energetic press led by a tireless Anthony Gordon, the Magpies made a bright start against an out-of-form AC Milan side, who headed into this group finale on a run of winning just three of their last ten games across all competitions.

A misfiring AC Milan – who also needed a victory to have a chance of advancing – were facing an inspired Newcastle team. The Italian giants were not the first side to go through stages of being overwhelmed at St James’ Park (and they certainly won’t be the last).

AC Milan’s game plan was pretty clear from the get-go. Take the sting out of the time at any given opportunity and use the pace of their attackers (Rafael Leao, in particular) to create a game-changing moment on the counter-attack.

But AC Milan looked unsettled as Newcastle did not allow their opponents to build momentum. Fikayo Tomori – whose stunning goalline clearance denied Miguel Almiron in the 20th minute – was the only visiting player who did himself justice (with England boss Gareth Southgate watching on from the stands) before half-time but the Magpies were still able to take the lead.

In the 32nd minute, Gordon raced towards goal before playing in 17-year-old Lewis Miley – showing no sign of his inexperience in another impressive display – who pulled the ball back to Joelinton.

The striker-turned-midfielder produced the perfect forward’s finish as his fierce shot gave AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan no chance as the ball flew into the top corner.

Newcastle needed to win and for PSG to drop points in Dortmund to go through. The Magpies were holding up their end of the bargain at the interval and in a further boost, the French giants were being held in Germany.

And the atmosphere at St James’ Park went into overdrive at 21:10 local time as the home crowd gradually gathered word that Dortmund had taken the lead against PSG.

But in a matter of seconds, their positivity was extinguished as the whole mood in Newcastle and Germany changed. Just a few minutes after falling behind, Warren Zaire-Emery’s equaliser dragged PSG level, while Chelsea loanee Christian Pulicic found the net for AC Milan. This was a very poor goal to concede from the hosts’ perspective as they passed up a couple of opportunities to clear.

As expected, Group F has lived up to its billing of being this year’s Champions League group of death and it’s only fitting that the top two positions were anyone’s to claim with 20 minutes of the final round fixtures remaining.

Newcastle’s hearts were in the mouths when PSG found the net with 15 minutes to go but after that unjust late penalty hampered the English side in Paris two weeks ago, the French giants appeared to have been dealt a dose of karma as VAR disallowed the goal.

Not long after, Tino Livramento’s blushes were sparred after his misplaced touch gifted Leao a one-on-one with Martin Dubravka. The Milan standout sent the stand-in goalkeeper the wrong way but he could only strike the post with his effort.

But AC Milan’s counter-attack gameplan eventually proved to be Newcastle’s downfall. Centre-back Fabian Schar pushed forward in search of a winner but he left his side exposed at the back when their attack broke down.

AC Milan were ruthless with their breakaway as Samuel Chukwueze curled the ball past Dubravka to complete the visitor’s second-half turnaround.

Pulisic’s equaliser took the wind out of Newcastle’s sails and they did not have enough in the tank to turn the tide back in their favour as they were punished by a seasoned Champions League outfit. 

The home defeat to Bortmund and draw in Paris gave Newcastle an awful lot to do heading into Wednesday night’s fixture and Howe’s injury-plagued and weary squad came up short when it mattered most.

This is not to criticise Newcastle, who came closer to qualifying for the knockout stages than most onlookers expected them to before their Group F opener.

The PIF-funded Newcastle project is way ahead of schedule and their return to the Champions League was not expected to be secured so soon.

And drawn against three European superpowers, this Champions League campaign acted as an unexpected appetiser for Newcastle before they do inevitably shove themselves in as one of the heads of major tournament feasts on a more consistent basis.

While Aston Villa have been immune to the rigours of European football, Newcastle’s Premier League form (like Brighton) has been impacted by their tilt in a major competition.

This Champions League exit will hurt but in the short-term, it will benefit their Premier League prospects. While with the benefit of hindsight, this campaign will prove to have been a priceless learning experience for Howe’s team, whose return to the competition in a year or two will come when they have pricier assets to call upon to deal with the tournament’s demands.

More of those special St James’ Park nights are just around the corner…