Eddie Howe feels the hard-fought point with which Newcastle emerged from their trip to AC Milan could serve them well as their Champions League campaign continues.
The Magpies, who needed goalkeeper Nick Pope to make five first-half saves to ensure they came away from San Siro with a 0-0 draw, managed to frustrate the hosts for long periods and open their Group F account on their return to European football’s top table after an absence of two decades.
Head coach Howe said: “I thought the crowd were very good for Milan tonight. It was a hostile atmosphere for us, the players had to adjust to that and that’s why I don’t think you can underestimate the performance and the point that we get.
“I think it will look better and better as time goes on because it’s a new experience for a lot of people – me included – tonight and hopefully we can grow from this into the tournament.
“Again, I’ll praise the players for the defensive qualities that they showed today. We know we can do better with the ball, but hopefully that will come.”
Pope’s heroics provided the foundation on a night when he had to be at his best to keep the Rossoneri at bay three days after keeping a clean sheet in a Premier League victory over Brentford.
Howe said: “I thought he was outstanding today. He was excellent against Brentford – although he didn’t have a lot to do – and his all-round game was at his highest level.
A heroic display from Nick Pope this evening! 🧤 pic.twitter.com/GR6VzyyQhW
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) September 19, 2023
“It’s no coincidence, two big displays and two clean sheets from him which is absolutely crucial to us. He was a huge part of our success last year and no doubt he’ll be the same this year.”
Newcastle might even have snatched victory at the death when midfielder Sean Longstaff forced a crucial save from substitute keeper Marco Sportiello deep into stoppage time, and Howe was not countenancing suggestions his side had been fortunate.
He said: “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I didn’t think the draw was luck. We were slightly disappointed with how we played with the ball tonight, but there are a lot of different reasons for that.”
However, for all that the visitors defended with impressive resilience, particularly in the second half when they limited Milan to few clear-cut opportunities, they had already been let off the hook when Portugal international Rafael Leao had danced through the black and white shirts and with only Pope to beat, tried to back-heel a shot past him and simply fell over.
Rossoneri boss Stefano Pioli said: “Rafa Leao is much-appreciated by every football lover because he tries impossible things. He gives it a try. These are impossible things for the rest of the players.
“On the other hand, he tries to get that ‘Wow!’ effect, and sometimes he achieves it. If I had been there in front of the goal, I would have shot and probably I would have missed the goal.
“I’m sorry for my players because they have given their utmost and maybe more. It was a very intense game. We were tired because we ran so much. I’m sorry for our fans because they supported us throughout the whole game, and I’m sorry about not winning the first game in the group phase because this will be a very tough one.
“We wanted to win, but we couldn’t, so we’re not happy about the result.”