Everything has been new to Málaga this season in the Champions League, and the trend continues here as they face Borussia Dortmund; it’s the sides’ first ever meeting and the first time Málaga have even faced German opponents in Europe.
So far so good in terms of handling these new experiences too, for a club that no one gave a chance to both in their domestic league and even more so in Europe. Away from La Liga though, their debut season in the UEFA Champions League has been nothing short of remarkable and one of the stories of the European football season.
Rocked by financial uncertainty over the summer, Málaga were forced to contend with severe financial uncertainty; unpaid staff, a highly sought after coach set to walk away and most striking asset stripping of their best players. Málaga did what would become their trademark this season and come together, creating a fantastic collective strength guided by coach Manuel Pellegrini’s astute guidance. Typically just when things were looking more positive, the club was slapped with a UEFA ban preventing them from entering competition next season – when all heads could’ve dropped at the club, they simply were held higher. Struggles do persist however and even after Saturday’s 3-1 success at Rayo Vallecano, Pellegrini’s side have managed just six wins in 17 outings in 2013 – the juggling of priorities with a thing squad has clearly taken its toll.
The sales of last season’s top scorer Salomón Rondón and best player Santi Cazorla, before Nacho Monreal left more recently in January, have all been navigated astutely. Pellegrini has moulded together a team assisted by Sporting Director Mario Husillos that thrives in adversity, but is also capable of producing incredibly intelligent and attractive performances. With Cazorla gone particularly, some of the flair did decrease, but it has been replaced with a more secure and productive counter attacking system. This was shown in the 2-0 victory over FC Porto at La Rosaleda in the round of 16 second leg, as Málaga not only achieved their 9th clean sheet in 12 home games in Europe but also overpowered the Portuguese side with a mobile, decisive attacking edge. They were poor in the first leg however, perhaps allowing Porto too much of the ball and showing signs of anxiety in their game – the lessons of that game will need to be learnt as BVB’s sharp forward thrusts could have more end product than the Portuguese.
Málaga finished first in Group C, four points clear of seven-time champions Milan all before starting the incredible journey with Panathinaikos FC in the play-offs – prior to losing the first leg at Porto they had gone unbeaten too, winning four and drawing four. The facets of their success are clear to see, starting with Pellegrini.
The Chilean has rotated and restructured effortlessly well this season and continues to see his reputation rise. Ahead of the Porto games speculation was rife about his future with Manchester City and Chelsea linked, but he put aside it all to continue his fantastic work at the southern Spain-based club. Pellegrini has handed Málaga a more defensive look thus season in light of player sales, with two holding players in the team creating a firm base. His team plays in his mould, equally balancing the discipline and organisation qualities with burst of aggression and attacking incision.
Veteran Weligton and former Bayern Munich man Martín Demichelis have been outstanding at centre-back while Jesús Gámez and Antunes are the full-backs who spring forward at every opportunity. Eliseu would be on the left instead of Antunes but injury prevents him from playing, and without him Málaga lose a serious asset in their counter attacking surges. Will Caballero has been astonishing this season as goalkeeper and despite a lack of acknowledgment by Argentina for his efforts, he continues to provide one of the safest pairs of hands in Spain.
Jérémy Toulalan is one of those players in the midfield base and the Frenchman is one of the key men over this tie. His discipline defensively is extraordinary and either side of injuries has shown his quality in a team that badly needed a safety net. Whereas the Frenchman Toulalan provides the rigidness and structure, ahead of him Isco provides the fluidity and vibrancy that Pellegrini needs for the South American fusion in his team’s. The young Spaniard brings the flair, creativity and spectacular that you’d associate with any Brazilian or Argentinean and has already lit up the competition with 3 goals and 3 assists in this, his first ever Champions League; the battle between him and Mario Götze for Europe’s golden boy will be enthralling.
Joaquín will dart about ahead and alongside Isco, and despite his ever advancing years he still has the youthful exuberance in his bones. Now 31, he’s perhaps in the most brilliant moment of his career with the pace and trickery from out wide or operating as a second striker still causing defenders problems. The first leg being in Málaga will test Pellegrini’s tactical balancing act to the limit, as his approach must be positive but also retain the structure that has benefited him so well.
Just another day, another challenge for Malaga but the question remains will it be yet another one accomplished.
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