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Nolberto Solano: Newcastle will have an extra player on European nights

19 Sep | interview | BY Will Rook | MIN READ TIME |
Nolberto Solano: Newcastle will have an extra player on European nights

Magpies legend Solano talks about their Champions League campaign, ambitions under Eddie Howe and Aston Villa's early-season performance.

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What have you made of Newcastle’s slow start to the season?

The Premier League is the most difficult league to play in. It’s incredibly tough. Everybody knew that Newcastle would have a busy and tough calendar this season, especially at the start.

I watched the Brentford game and Newcastle got a bit lucky, getting a penalty at the end. Brentford played very well. It’s an important win for them, though, giving some confidence going into the Champions League games.

How important is it to have perspective given the standard of teams that Newcastle have faced?

It’s not been an easy start for Newcastle, with Liverpool, Manchester City and Brighton, who play fantastic football. They’re a great team and one I really enjoy watching.

Like I said, this season the Premier League will be really tough for Newcastle given their commitments in other competitions. I hope they can maintain the consistency to get back into the top four or top six, but it won’t be easy with how well other teams have started. Spurs have started so well, Liverpool, Chelsea are not too good at the moment but it’s a long season.

Playing in the Champions League will be something new for them, it’s completely different to domestic football.

How do you see their game against AC Milan going?

Serie A used to be a much stronger league than it is today. There have been impressive teams in Italy over the last 10 years, like Juventus and Napoli, but it has been stronger than it is now.

Having said that, AC Milan are a club that deserve respect. They have a good history and their players have a lot more experience of playing in the Champions League. Newcastle, on the other hand, haven’t been in the competition for 20 years.

Since Eddie Howe arrived at Newcastle, he’s made them really tough team to play against. They’re physical and they defend so well. In this game, they need to go back to those basics and, if they do, they can have a good result.

Newcastle are in the Group of Death. Do you see their opponents’ vast Champions League experience helping or hindering them?

Newcastle need to go back to the way of playing that they found success with last season and then, there’s no reason they can’t beat any of these teams, regardless of experience.

Everybody was thinking that Paris Saint-Germain were a candidate to win the Champions League a few years ago, but it never happened and things have moved on slightly.

I think that Dortmund are a team who know how to play in the Champions League, but there’s nothing there for Newcastle to be afraid of. Their individual quality is at least as good.

Realistically, how far do you think Newcastle can go in the Champions League?

With the group they have been put in, it’s difficult to say exactly what stage they can go to, although I hope they go as far as possible.

Paris Saint-Germain, Dortmund and AC Milan are giants in football and have been in this competition for the last 20 or 30 years.

Newcastle need to be a horrible team to play against, press everywhere on the pitch and make their midfielders combative. If they do that, fingers crossed they will make it to the next round.

How much of an achievement would it be for them to make it to the next round?

The expectation at Newcastle after the last two years is massive. That period has been fantastic, but it’s been a massive jump for Eddie Howe. When he joined the club, everyone expected Newcastle to be a team who built slowly to be competitive, but it’s been a big shift looking at it today. It’s easy to forget they were in the relegation zone when he joined.

From there, to go straight into the Champions League, the fans have to be pleased to be there.

But that performance is why it’s hard to predict anything with this team. They’re a team that could have a good run and find themselves in the latter stages. They have got experienced, quality players – three quarters of their squad are internationals.

With that experience, playing in the Champions League should be a similar level of pressure.

Following the AC Milan game, they host Paris Saint-Germain. How much of the fear factor with them has disappeared following the departures of Neymar and Lionel Messi?

Paris Saint-Germain used to have one of the best squads in Europe until recently, but couldn’t quite get it together to win the Champions League.

That’s why I feel Newcastle have a chance against them, they’re currently rebuilding the team. I know they have Kylian Mbappe, but he is only one player.

I think Newcastle could be strong at home in Europe, and I think they will win their games at St James’ Park. If they can do that, and nick a few points away, then the possibility is there for progression.

How much of an advantage is playing at St James’ Park for Newcastle?

Newcastle always have an extra player when they play at St James’ Park. Everyone knows what the passion is like in the north east, the fans push you to be better.

When I played for Newcastle, I loved it when we played at home. I enjoyed the support from the fans, it’s a lovely stadium and a great atmosphere.

The fans always give their team a lift, so hopefully that can be a plus in the Champions League.

From your experience of playing in the Champions League for Newcastle, how did the European nights at St James’ Park differ to league games?

To be honest, the fans show the same level of support and passion all the time. It doesn’t matter if you play a Premier League game or a Champions League games, the supporters always create a passionate atmosphere.

It’s special, and it’s going to be great to see people from Milan, Paris and Dortmund come over to Newcastle and learn a bit about the city. It’s a very cold place in terms of weather, but the people make it very warm.

Being in the Champions League will hopefully build the profile of the club as well.

Having played under Sir Bobby Robson, what kind of things did he do to get the best out of a squad that didn’t have much Champions League experience?

Sir Bobby Robson had a wealth of European experience from his time working abroad. He worked in Portugal for Sporting and Porto and Spain at Barcelona among other places.

As a player, our Champions League campaign was difficult. The second group stage in 2002/03, we played against Inter Milan and Barcelona, so it was tough. Playing in Europe is more tactical as well, so Bobby’s knowledge helped there.

You need to know the teams to get through in the tournament, Nowadays, football managers can see everything from all around the globe, there is a lot more information available easily. 

What have you made of the signing of Sandro Tonali?

Tonali was one of many players who did well in the 5-1 victory over Aston Villa in the season opener, but after coming through a difficult period of form people have started to get a bit worried.

Any player who arrives from abroad to the Premier League takes time to adapt. I hope their form picks up now because it’s easier to do when your team is winning games. When form is going badly, there’s a lot more criticism, which can affect people.

But you can see he’s a good player. I really like him with Bruno Guimaraes. For me, they aren’t really pace players but they’re intelligent and are great with the ball at their feet.

Like I said, I think it’s going to be a tough season for everyone, but if Newcastle do well then players can be a bit more relaxed in the way they play, which in turn takes the pressure off a little.

Harvey Barnes is one who doesn’t necessarily need to adjust to the Premier League, how important will he be this season?

I was quite surprised that Newcastle signed him. But it’s good to have a deeper squad, given the additional competition they are going to be playing in.

Sometimes Howe will choose some players to play in the Premier League at the weekend and leave some players fresh for the Champions League in midweek.

He’s been in the Premier League for a little while now and, relegation aside, had a great time at Leicester. Expectation will be high for Barnes, but I hope he can show some of his Leicester form for Newcastle.

Why were you surprised that Newcastle signed him?

With all respect, Newcastle are a club looking to go forward and bring themselves up to the level of Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal.

Obviously Leicester got relegated last season, and I thought that Newcastle might have been a bit more ambitious in the names they were targeting in the transfer market. I’m not saying that Barnes isn’t going to help them be competitive at the top of the table, but I was just surprised to see his name.

To me, Newcastle could have gone for someone with a bigger profile, but if Howe likes the player than we give him time to see how he will perform.

Was there anyone higher profile that you would have liked to see Newcastle sign over summer?

I was really hopeful that Newcastle could get Declan Rice, but he’s a London boy and he wanted to stay there.

I don’t know what the problem is with the north east, many London players don’t seem to like it up there.

Newcastle is a pretty city to be in and a pretty city to live in, but everyone makes their own decisions.

I would have really liked to have seen Rice at Newcastle, but the club obviously have to be careful with Financial Fair Play, so it’s understandable.

Have you found that Newcastle’s place geographically means they sometimes miss out on players?

From my experience, I’m working in Sweden as a coach but my family home is still in Newcastle. I really like it here.

Geordies are very warm people, everyone is very nice. I can’t see anything wrong with Newcastle, but clearly some people want to be in the capital.

But I think if they keep having good results, they will keep attracting better players.

What have you made of Aston Villa’s start to the season and to Unai Emery’s managerial tenure there?

Emery is a good manager, he showed that before he went to Aston Villa. They finished very well last year, so we can’t judge them too much on a slow start.

It’s a long season and there are lots of good teams in the Premier League, so everyone needs a bit of time before we can judge them.

A few years ago, you were probably thinking about Brighton and Brentford to be clubs fighting in the relegation places and look at them now.

What have you made of Moussa Diaby’s start?

I really like Diaby. He’s very sharp, very fast. He seems to be a player who has adapted very quickly to the Premier League.

I feel like players from Germany have less of a problem adapting to the Premier League because the styles are more similar to that of Spain or Italy.

It’s always difficult for clubs like Aston Villa to keep hold of players like this if they continue their form.

How do you see Leicester and Hull performing in the Championship?

I believe Leicester have the experience in the squad to win promotion back to the Premier League, they have kept the majority of their team from last season.

Hull have started very well as well, so hopefully they can both get back into the Premier League.

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Will Rook

Sports writer who won a BBC Worldwide award while studying at the University of Sheffield before covering football for Bradford City and other outlets.

Will Rook

Sports writer who won a BBC Worldwide award while studying at the University of Sheffield before covering football for Bradford City and other outlets.