Helm’s Deep and a Lombardy bombardment: Newcastle United can take plenty of heart from San Siro stalemate

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The Magpies held on for a 0-0 draw against AC Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday evening.

As far as reality checks go, it could have been a whole lot worse. Newcastle United will return from their historic Milanese mini-break grazed and wide-eyed, and yet somehow in possession of a first Champions League point in twenty years.

On Monday evening, there was controversy abound as the Magpies took flight later than expected, incurring a certain amount of wrath from UEFA, who would perhaps be well-advised to direct at least a smidgeon of their indignation away from meteorological factors beyond human control and towards things like, I dunno, racism.

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Anyways, Eddie Howe’s men did make kick-off at the San Siro in plenty of time, although judging by the evidence of their foam-tipped display, you would have been forgiven for thinking that their forward line was still stranded at the baggage carousel. It took until the dying embers of stoppage time for Newcastle to record their first shot on target, and in fairness, were it not for a fine save, Sean Longstaff might well have nicked it for them. As they (probably) say in Italian, ‘distruggere e afferrare’.

Still, there were positives to cling to on a pitch that at times must have felt steeper than the surrounding Bergamasque Alps. For large stints, this was less ‘Lombard’, more ‘bombard’; in total, AC Milan registered 25 shots, with nine of those calling for some kind of intervention. Italy hasn’t seen a Pope called Nicholas offer this much salvation since at least 1455. But the Toon goalkeeper’s performance was emblematic of an admirable, broader grit that served his side well.

Kieran Trippier in particular was magnificent, hurling himself around with all the indefatigable enthusiasm of a half-cut Geordie on rain-slicked cobblestones. Praise too should be reserved for the aforementioned Longstaff and his ever so slightly more glamorous assistant Bruno Guimaraes, who battled and brawled as if this were in fact an away day at Helm’s Deep. If there is a ‘Guimli’ joke in there somewhere, I can’t be bothered to make it.

And while to an extent Newcastle will be disappointed that their return to continental competition ended in the kind of methodical siege that left them somewhat resembling a Christmas cracker joke about a sunburnt badger (black, white, red all over, etc.), they can take heart from the fact that in spite of Milan’s superiority, they held out.

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Tuesday evening was a reminder that the level of quality required to even tread water in the Champions League is absurdly high, but it was also an indication that the Magpies are suitably up for the scrap. Between now and the end of the group stage, Howe’s side will have to play Milan again as well as contesting unenviable double headers against Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. There is a version of events in which those five outings descend into an absolute bloodbath.

But while it might still not be enough to see them through to the fabled land of knockout football, at the very least, Newcastle will believe that if they can replicate the obstinacy and nerve that they exhibited in Italy, they have a fighting chance of doing themselves proud.

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