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The defiant message behind Newcastle’s complicated Champions League return

As the final whistle blew, cementing a season of overachievement, Newcastle United’s fans were singing a version of a favourite chant, with the lyrics customised as their horizons broadened. “Tell me ma” often contains the assertion that “we’re going to Wembley,” even if the Carabao Cup final was actually Newcastle’s first trip to the national stadium in the 21st century. But as Nick Pope’s late save secured a draw against Leicester to clinch a top-four finish, the destination was changed. “We’re going to Italy,” they chorused; sooner than they thought, perhaps.

Newcastle’s first Champions League game in two decades is at San Siro, against the seven-time champions of the continent, AC Milan. It does not necessarily render them underdogs: not when Newcastle had the financial muscle to sign Sandro Tonali, the Rossoneri fan who was seen as future club captain, this summer. The picture can be clouded both on and off the pitch: Stefano Pioli’s team were Champions League semi-finalists last season but lost the Milan derby 5-1 to Inter on Saturday.

With Newcastle, the footballing feats came after the takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The morality of the ownership can be questioned. The money has helped, with around £400m committed in transfer fees. It meant they ended up funding Milan’s summer rebuilding – selling Tonali in effect paid for the purchases of Christian Pulisic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Yunus Musah – but if Newcastle have still had to be bargain hunters, that is the Rossoneri’s role now. With the days of Silvio Berlusconi’s largesse consigned to the past, Milan mirrored Newcastle in one respect last season: they confounded expectations to get into the top four, but of the Champions League.

But for a