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Newcastle returns to Champions League after 20 years

LONDON (AFP) – Fuelled by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, Newcastle return to the Champions League for the first time in 20 years at AC Milan tonight 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 per cent 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.

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.

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.

Newcastle United striker Callum Wilson celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Manchester United last season. PHOTO: AFP
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