One of the rarer joys of the Uefa Champions League, a competition in which those at the summit of the club game collide with such regularity that it can seem routine, is when a gatecrasher rolls into town. Better still if that outsider arrives sensing their unfamiliarity to the reigning elite may be a strength.
Newcastle United, preparing to play their first group-stage fixture in the Champions League for more than two decades, flew into Italy later than they might have Monday, the better to hide any clues about tactics or line-ups from prying eyes. They trained at home, not in San Siro, where they face AC Milan on Tuesday evening, before boarding their plane.
It means they can enter the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan’s fabled arena commonly known as the San Siro, hinting they have some secrets, a few surprises to unleash.
Not that Milan cannot be ambushed by opponents on whom the most thorough homework has been done. At the weekend, San Siro staged what was the fifth Milan derby of the calendar year – one in the Italian Super Cup, in Riyadh, another in Serie A and a two-legged European Cup tie in May – and the outcome, a win for Inter Milan, was the same as it has been throughout 2023.
Milan lost again to their neighbours, were once more confounded by a well-organised defence and Inter’s slick counter-attack. Only this time the scale of Saturday’s defeat exceeded the recent precedents: 5-1, an inauspicious lead-in for what is a formidably challenging Champions League group.
The Rossoneri made last season’s semi-finals but must regard progress into the knockouts this time as a tall order. To reach the last four in 2022/23, they needed to finish above RB Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb and edge out Tottenham Hotspur over two legs. The most significant feat was then eliminating Napoli, runaway Italian champions-elect, to earn their meeting with Inter, who triumphed 3-0 over two legs.
The requirements in Group F are tougher. Paris Saint-Germain, the serial Ligue 1 champions, are the top seeds of a mini-league in which Borussia Dortmund, who missed out on winning the Bundesliga last season only on goal difference, were the next name to be drawn. Newcastle, by dint of their long absence from Champions League participation, were among the lowest seeds.
Newcastle’s modest ranking is an illusion, a time-lapse that does not recognise the rapid ascent of a club who have invested not far shy of €500 million on transfer fees over the past four transfer windows, the period since a new consortium, with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund the majority stakeholder, took control of the club. Newcastle sat 19th in the Premier League at the time of the takeover.
Newcastle 1 Brentford 0: Player ratings
Some 19 months later, they were finishing fourth in England’s top division, four points ahead of Liverpool, one of the Champions League regulars not present in this season’s competition, and fully 27 points above Chelsea, who have spent more than twice as much on new players as Newcastle in the past two years but have at the same time plunged from being European champions in 2021 to mid-table in the Premier League.
The long-term target at Newcastle is to consolidate their elevated place in this altered hierarchy, the immediate aim to make a statement comeback to the Champions League.
In terms of prestige, AC Milan, seven-time winners of the European Cup, versus Newcastle, who were promoted from the Championship only six years ago, is a mismatch.
In terms of applied know-how, man for man, there is greater parity. Among the visitors this evening is a midfielder who only five months ago was contesting a Champions League semi-final at San Siro. He is Sandro Tonali, bought by Newcastle from Milan in the summer for around €70 million and returning to face former teammates sooner than he had anticipated.
The real fairy tales are to be found elsewhere. Defender Dan Burn, 31, from the Newcastle area and a boyhood fan, should make his European debut after a career that has taken him up and down the English divisions.
He’ll probably be marking Christian Pulisic, a Champions League winner in 2021, and, until the weekend’s humbling in a derby in which few Milan players shone, the Rossoneri man in the best early-season form.
Stefano Pioli, the Milan manager, was minimising the residual damage left by Inter’s weekend humbling of his side. “I don’t believe there is any psychological harm,” said Pioli. “We are a mature side.”
Not so mature that his starting line-up may well include only one player over 30, probably Olivier Giroud at centre-forward, or that Pioli did not welcome a visit to Milan’s pre-match preparations from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the club’s leading ambassador for experience, maturity and enduring excellence until he retired, aged 41, in the summer.
“Zlatan spoke, individually, to some of the players,” reported Pioli. “We know how much he cares about this club. We will give our best.”