Fuelled by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, Newcastle return to the Champions League for the first time in 20 years at AC Milan on Tuesday hoping this is just the start of their rise on the European stage.
The Magpies have spent more time in the Championship than facing Europe’s elite for the past two decades, but are aiming to follow in the footsteps of Manchester City by turning their Gulf state backing into glory at home and abroad.
When they broke into the Premier League’s top four in their first full season since the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) took an 80 percent stake in the club, the Newcastle project appeared to be ahead of schedule.
But the early weeks of the new season have brought a reality check as Eddie Howe’s men suffered consecutive defeats to City, Liverpool and Brighton before bouncing back with an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Brentford on Saturday.
As many of football’s biggest stars have been lured to Saudi in recent months by the lucrative pay packets on offer, Newcastle’s spending in the transfer market has remained surprisingly restrained due to financial fair play pressures.
They were only the seventh-highest spenders in the Premier League this summer as Harvey Barnes and Tino Livramento joined from relegated Leicester and Southampton respectively, while Sandro Tonali swapped the San Siro for St. James’ Park by joining from AC Milan.
– Group of death –
Tonali’s move was illustrative of the shifting sands of continental football as seven-time European champions Milan were unable to resist the financial power of the Premier League even after reaching last season’s Champions League semi-finals.
The Italian is expected to return to Howe’s starting line-up for his homecoming after sitting out the win over Brentford on the bench with a minor injury suffered on international duty.
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Both sides are aware of the need for a fast start in Group F with Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund making up the toughest section in this season’s draw.
These are the nights of glamour that Newcastle fans longed for during the drab 14 years under previous owner Mike Ashley.
Howe is not daunted by the level of opposition in his first Champions League campaign as he believes his side are used to competing at a higher level due to the demands of the Premier League.
“I don’t see it being a huge difference to be honest, you’re preparing against teams that are from Europe rather than England, (but) for me the Premier League is the best league in the world,” said Howe.
“I think for loads of different reasons the Premier League is an unbelievable league and I love being in it. Now we’re going to Europe, it’s a different competition and different challenges, but it’s still football.”
Manchester City may have needed 12 goes to finally win the Champions League, but the English champions have been ever-present in the competition since qualifying for the first time under Abu Dhabi-backed ownership in 2011.
That is the consistency Newcastle now expect at Europe’s top table with Tuesday the first step of another Saudi aim to make their mark on European football.
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