Newcastle United return to the Champions League group stage for the first time in over two decades, and it does not get much bigger than a trip to the iconic San Siro to lock horns with AC Milan.

The 2023/24 UEFA Champions League group stage gets underway on Tuesday, and one of the most exciting games of the opening matchday sees Newcastle United travel to San Siro to take on AC Milan.

AC Milan should consider themselves lucky to be in the Champions League this season. The Rossoneri are only here due to Juventus’s points deduction for false accounting. And their Scudetto defence last season fizzled out early on. Meanwhile, they are coming off a woeful performance in the Derby della Madonnina, as they were pumped 5-1 in a demolition job by fierce rivals Inter Milan on Saturday.

It was Stefano Pioli’s side’s first loss of the Serie A campaign after three straight wins. But the nature of the defeat has raised a few eyebrows heading into Tuesday’s match. Still, they have made a fine start to the campaign and currently sit third in Serie A.

The hosts will be keen to get off to a good start in the UEFA Champions League. With Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund the other two clubs in Group F, they will need to make San Siro a fortress in order to progress to the next round.

The Magpies, meanwhile, were 1-0 winners in a hard-fought Premier League match against Brentford over the weekend. It was not pretty, but they did enough to pick up three priceless points at St. James’ Park, which put an end to a three-match losing streak.

The Toon are now 11th in the Premier League, far short of their lofty expectations. But Eddie Howe will be hoping to string together results to trigger a turnaround for his slightly struggling side. The Geordies have been looking forward to this since they secured historic qualification last season, and what a way to kick things off with a trip to San Siro!

Newcastle United could not have asked for a more glamorous group, either, as they are pitted together alongside European mainstays such as PSG, Dortmund, and AC Milan in the Group of Death. Ahead of their Group F opener against Milan at San Siro, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the encounter between the two sides.

Team News and Tactics

AC Milan

Pierre Kalulu (muscle) is set to miss out with an injury sustained with the France national team during the international break, while Ismael Bennacer (knee) remains out with a long-term injury. It was a largely forgettable evening under the rain for Stefano Pioli’s side on Saturday. But his team was able to get through the match without any fresh injury concerns, meaning he could field his best XI against Newcastle.

Pioli will be able to welcome back Fikayo Tomori to the back line after he missed the Inter game through suspension, taking the place of either Simon Kjaer or Malick Thiaw, who were both very poor against Inter. The rest of the starting XI just about picks itself up at the moment, with Mike Maignan taking his place in between the sticks.

Theo Hernandez will try to make a difference as the left-back, while captain Davide Calabria will hope to put in a solid display on the other side as the right-back up against in-form Anthony Gordon. Pioli will ask both of them to make some decent runs out on the flanks to support the attack.

Rade Krunic, Tijjani Reijnders, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek will make up the AC Milan workhorse midfield as they look to compete well in duels against a physical and press-resistant Newcastle midfield.

There could be a change further forward, with Christian Pulisic possibly making way for Samuel Chukwueze after a lacklustre performance in the Milan derby. Talismanic winger Rafael Leao netted Milan’s consolation strike at the weekend, and the Portuguese maverick has scored two goals this season in four games for Milan. So, he will retain his spot upfront alongside veteran striker Olivier Giroud.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Maignan; Calabria, Tomori, Kjaer, Hernandez; Reijnders, Krunic, Loftus-Cheek; Chukwueze, Giroud, Leao

Newcastle United

Joe Willock (calf) and Emil Krafth (knee) remain sidelined, while Joelinton is expected to be sidelined for up to two weeks following an injury recurrence. The Brazilian reported back from international duty with a knee injury. And after missing the narrow 1-0 victory over Brentford, Howe confirmed Joelinton is immediately out of contention for the San Siro on Tuesday night.

The news is a bitter blow for Howe, who must now rejig his midfield. But Sandro Tonali is already a contender to start against his former club, with Newcastle set to rotate this week.

Eddie Howe will set his men up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Nick Pope in between the sticks off the back of his first clean sheet of the season against Brentford. There should be no changes in the back four, featuring silky Fabian Schar and Sven Botman in central defence, flanked by captain Kieran Trippier and towering left-back Dan Burn.

Tonali was deemed fit enough to make the bench against Brentford. So, the assumption is that he will get a special welcome at San Siro soon after making the switch. With Tonali coming back into the starting XI alongside Bruno Guimaraes and Sean Longstaff, 20-year-old Elliot Anderson will drop down to the bench.

Howe started the season with Anthony Gordon on the left and Miguel Almiron on the right wing. But Harvey Barnes came in for his first start off the left against Brentford, with Gordon moving to the other side. With recharged fitness levels, the Paraguayan speedster could be rotated back into the starting XI in place of Barnes in order to bring freshness to the side.

A refreshed Alexander Isak should be given the go-ahead to spearhead the attack in the number nine role over Callum Wilson, who will have to be content with a place on the bench despite his match-winning spot-kick last time out, although he might come on to influence the game in the latter stages if the Magpies are in need of a goal by then.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Pope; Trippier, Schar, Botman, Burn; Longstaff, Guimaraes, Tonali; Almiron, Isak, Gordon

Key Stats

  • AC Milan have won three of their last four home games in the UEFA Champions League while also keeping clean sheets in victories.
  • AC Milan have met a Premier League side in their last three European appearances, recording just one win in eight games.
  • The visitors have a decent record in their nine European meetings against Italian teams, with three wins, defeats, and draws apiece.
  • Milan have kept clean sheets in just two of their last 10 competitive matches since April.
  • Newcastle have scored in ten of their last 12 matches on the road.

Player to Watch

Alexander Isak

Embed from Getty Images

While Eddie Howe turned to gladiator Callum Wilson’s leadership, courage, and poacher’s instinct up top to arrest a run of three straight defeats, he could recall Isak for Tuesday’s Champions League opener in Milan, albeit the former put on a man-of-the-match performance last time out.

Isak managed to notch ten goals from 17 starts in 2022/23, with 27 appearances in all competitions, playing a key role in helping secure Champions League qualification and reach the EFL Cup final last season. Had it not been for injury problems, that tally would surely have been significantly higher.

Already a very popular player with the Toon Army, the Scandinavian striker’s pace and skill is a handful for defences. And he is brilliant at pressing from the front. The 23-year-old has also started this season in strong form, scoring twice in four league outings. But both of those strikes came against Aston Villa on opening day and was dropped against Brentford. So, there will be a spring in his stride as he looks to get back to scoring ways here.


AC Milan 1-2 Newcastle United

It will, no doubt, be a close encounter and a pretty low-scoring affair given Milan will be looking for a response after the heavy derby defeat, while Newcastle have reverted to a rock-solid defence after a tough start to the season and does not look much clinical right now. The visitors struggled to break down their opponents for long periods but eventually overpowered Brentford.

The Rossoneri, who have far more continental experience than their English opponents, are the bookies favourites to kick-start their European campaign with maximum points. But the hosts must be on a serious downer after a disastrous 5-1 spanking at Inter Milan at the weekend, which exposed Milan’s tactical deficiencies and midfield imbalance.

With that in mind, we predict Eddie Howe’s Magpies to produce the first upset of this season’s Champions League with a narrow victory against Milan at San Siro this midweek.

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