x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Champions League: Malaga will enjoy European run while it lasts

Spaniards travel to Portugal to face Porto in last 16 before next year's European ban.

Malaga striker Javier Saviola celebrates the only goal in the win over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.
Malaga striker Javier Saviola celebrates the only goal in the win over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.

Malaga's only defeat in 12 European away games came in Porto in 2003. The Andalusians return to Portugal's second city tonight for one of the biggest matches in their history, although they meet FC Porto for the first time rather than neighbours Boavista, the side who beat them a decade ago.

If Malaga fans know all about the capricious nature of football, so do Boavista: the 2001 Portuguese champions, after financial problems, are now in the regional third division where crowds average 400.

Financial uncertainty meant Malaga fans feared an implosion at the start of this season. They qualified for the group stages only after overcoming Panathinaikos in a qualifier, but they went on to be the surprise team of the competition, winning their first three and drawing three to finish group winners ahead of AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht.

An impressive debut for the Andalusians, but Manuel Pellegrini, the coach, had done it before, leading Villarreal to an unbeaten group stage debut in 2005.

He will want to make the most of this season in Europe, for Malaga are banned from all Uefa competitions next term for the financial irregularities which threatened to undermine this season.

Santi Cazorla was sold to Arsenal in what seemed to be the start of a July fire sale, yet Malaga steadied and Cazorla's departure was barely noticed.

Malaga's domestic form has been mixed since the group stage ended, in December, although their four wins from 10 games have been enough to see them rise from sixth to fourth following inconsistent form among their Primera Liga rivals.

They also held Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey, but Malaga had failed to keep a clean sheet in 11 games before Saturday's 1-0 home win over Athletic Bilbao.

Vitor Pereira's Porto are more consistent, heading their domestic league on goal difference from Benfica.

The leading pair, 14 points clear of the chasing pack, have near identical records of 15 wins, four draws and no defeats from 19 games. Both have scored 47 goals, although Porto's defence gives them the edge: they have conceded just two goals at home in their past 13 league games. The reigning champions have not been beaten at home in a league game since 2008, back when their current coach, Pereira, 44, was in charge of the club's youth team.

His transition from assistant to coach after Andre Villas-Boas left for Chelsea has been seamless.

Pereira, like the former Porto coach Jose Mourinho, had a modest career as a player before turning to coaching at an early age.

The two-time winners are in the knockout stages for the 10th time, although a December away defeat to Paris St Germain saw them finish second in a group which also featured Dinamo Zagreb and Dynamo Kiev. The attacking midfielder James Rodriguez returns after seven games out injured, the 21-year-old Colombian their biggest star since his compatriot Falcao left for Atletico Madrid in 2011.

He will face the 20-year-old Isco, who plays in the same position for Malaga.

Malaga supporters are likely to savour their European moments, something they will not be able to do next season.

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