MILAN: Eddie Howe was proud of Newcastle United’s dogged return to Champions League football after two decades away, holding seven-time European kings AC Milan to a goalless draw in Tuesday’s opening Group F match.
Howe was the happier of the two managers with taking a point from the clash at the San Siro as his team were mostly on the back foot against last season’s losing semifinalists.
Newcastle did little in their first fixture in Europe’s top club competition since 2003, the Saudi Arabia-backed club barely creating a chance and lucky to escape with a draw on the balance of play.
Milan should have won after wasting a string of chances, particularly in the first half, and dominating the play on Sandro Tonali’s return to his old stomping ground after being sold to Newcastle in July.
“Definitely pride in result and the performance and the mentality shown,” Howe told reporters.
“Within the squad the result wasn’t underestimated. Also they are very honest players that acknowledge the fact that we can perform better.
“I think we’ll get better and better as time goes on. Hopefully can grow into the tournament.”
Stefano Pioli’s Milan sat top of a tough group before Paris Saint-Germain’s opener with Borussia Dortmund at the Parc des Princes later on Tuesday, level with their Premier League opposition.
Tonali’s father was at the San Siro and saw much more football played by the hosts than by his son, back in the Newcastle starting line-up after missing international duty and the weekend’s 1-0 win over Brentford with injury.
Before kick-off and during the match the Italy midfielder was loudly cheered by supporters who don’t resent his mega-money move to England.
But home fans, who watched their team thumped 5-1 by local rivals Inter Milan on Saturday, were left frustrated by their side’s poor finishing and Newcastle’s at times desperate defending which left the match goalless.
“You have to win when you play so much better than such a good team. Unfortunately we weren’t able to capitalize on the situations we created,” said Pioli.
“It’s a shame that we didn’t win the first match because it’s going to be a difficult group. We’re not happy with the result... We were lacking the most important quality of all.”
First Tommaso Pobega had a well-struck drive pushed away by Nick Pope in the 13th minute and moments later the Newcastle goalkeeper got his body in the way of Samu Chuckwueze’s header.
Barely a minute had passed from those two chances when Olivier Giroud then nearly poked home after bustling to get in front of Pope, and unmarked Theo Hernandez had his head in his hands when he failed to score with his free header from Rade Krunic’s corner.
With less than 20 minutes gone Milan fans were wondering how their team weren’t leading by at least one goal, and just after the half-hour mark Giroud wasted another golden opportunity when he misdirected his flicked finish from Hernandez’s low cross past the near post.
Cries of frustration came pouring down the San Siro stands and supporters could barely believe their eyes when the disappointing Rafael Leao surged into the area and beat two defenders only to attempt a backheel instead of shooting and fall over his own feet.
Leao wasted another gilt-edged opportunity in the 74th minute when he flung his head at substitute Alessandro Florenzi’s brilliant cross and sent the ball flying inches over the bar.
And after Newcastle’s defense put their bodies on the line to block a series of shots it was almost the away side who snatched the points at the death with their only shot on target.
Home fans had their hearts in their mouths when Marco Sportiello, introduced in the 81st minute for the injured Mike Maignan, tipped away Sean Longstaff’s effort from the edge of the penalty area.
Sportiello then had to stretch to push away a dangerous corner just before referee Jose María Sanchez brought an eventful stalemate to a close.