Just like that, it was over. Newcastle United were knocked out of the Champions League on Wednesday night by AC Milan, who found a late winner in a 2-1 victory at St James’ Park. This year’s “group of death” claimed the team who, on paper, looked like its most expected victim.
The greater tournament pedigree sat with seven-time winners Milan and a pair of former finalists in Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund. But Newcastle were not some underdog interlopers. This wasn’t FC Copenhagen holding their own against superpowers like Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Newcastle are the richest club in the world. Even PSG, a club defined by financial largesse, can’t write the cheques the Saudi PIF can.
The Magpies started well, winning a creditable point at San Siro before hammering PSG 4-1. Injuries took their toll as the tournament wore on, as they have in the league, but Eddie Howe’s side should still have done better after a promising start.
Wednesday had an air of glorious failure, particularly given the late goal. But like Manchester United’s fruitless endeavour on Tuesday, the damage had been done earlier in the competition. A pair of defeats without scoring against Dortmund were costly. Get something from those and the point Newcastle got in Paris on Matchday Five starts to look a lot better.
A debate can be had over whether Newcastle needed Europa League football at this stage or whether going out of continental competition entirely was a disguised blessing. Howe’s men are seventh in the Premier League as it stands. There is certainly a lot to be said for the ability to now commit more resources to league football.
But for a club of Newcastle’s monied ambitions, the experience of a Europa League knockout campaign could have been valuable. This is a side who hadn’t played any form of European football in a decade before this season. Considering the ability in their squad, going all the way in UEFA’s secondary competition would have been far from out of the question. But even if they fell short, the experience of European knockout football would have stood them in good stead for the future.
One wonders what will become of this iteration of Newcastle should they fail to qualify for the Champions League next season. There is a number of players in their squad for whom the competition is their natural stage and the place they will want to play.
Bruno Guimaraes, the wonderful midfielder at the literal and figurative centre of what they do, has reportedly expressed an interest in playing in La Liga in the past. Will the Magpies be able to tempt him to stay without the Champions League on offer? What of Alexander Isak, the free-scoring forward who looks ready for the biggest stage? Sandro Tonali may be suspended currently due to a betting charge, but he is a player who grew accustomed to the Champions League at Milan. Could he be tempted by the pull of the bright lights?
Champions League elimination isn’t a disaster for a club at Newcastle’s point of evolution. They are still climbing the ladder to take their place as part of the elite. But given the money involved and the quality of player they have, you only really get one shot at glorious failure. The “group of death” is one thing, but next time Newcastle find themselves in Europe they must play the hand they’re dealt. The PSG victory and strong away points at Milan and PSG show they can handle this stage. Next time, Newcastle must excel on it.
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