Despite cash injection, Spain's bottom team look set for relegation from the top flight
False dawn for Malaga as the dreaded drop looms
It was not supposed to be like this at Malaga. When Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, took over last summer after buying the Primera Liga club for €36 million (Dh182.2m), he spoke of a bright new dawn for a club who have yo-yoed between the top two divisions.
Malaga would challenge Real Madrid and Barcelona. They would build a new stadium to seat 65,000, despite their average crowds of 17,000 being fine in the modern, 29,000-capacity Estadio La Rosaleda.
His statements were taken with a pinch of salt, but Malaga's wage bill ranked sixth in the league and the respected Jesualdo Ferreira was appointed as coach. Seven new players were brought in before the season started, including one for a club-record €3.5m.
Hopes were high but have slumped desperately as Malaga sit bottom of the league, a position in which they are expected to remain with just 11 games left.
Their season started poorly and got worse. Ferreira was sacked after 10 games and replaced by Manuel Pellegrini, the intelligent coach who enjoyed so much success at Villarreal that Real Madrid appointed him last season.
Pellegrini and a respected new sporting director, Antonio Fernandez, oversaw a spending spree in an otherwise quiet January transfer window in Spain as Malaga sought to buy their way out of trouble. The highly rated Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo came on loan, as did the Argentinian international Martin Dimichelis, from Bayern Munich.
The Madrid midfielder Julio Baptista also arrived at a cost of €2.5m, as well as Enzo Maresca, once of Juventus, West Brom and Sevilla. Meanwhile, the players who had been bought in the close season were sparsely used.
Malaga's latest batch of new signings have made little difference. True, they have played Barcelona, Sevilla, Villarreal, Valencia and Real Madrid away since the turn of the year, but they are sinking fast and their cause is not helped by the lowly teams around them picking up points.
Following a rare win against relegation rivals Almeria recently - their first in eight games - Malaga rested key players for their next match against Real Madrid and were beaten 7-0 in the Bernabeu.
Pellegrini claimed it was all part of a master plan which involved losing to Madrid and then beating relegation rivals Osasuna three days later.
He said it would be "irresponsible" to beat Madrid and then lose at home to Osasuna.
Most coaches may think the same. They know that they are not going to beat a Madrid side away who have won every game at the Bernabeu, but to say so publicly is another thing.
The Spanish media hammered Pellegrini, but the Malaga fans retained faith in the Chilean. For the Osasuna game, they filled the Rosaleda for the first time this season and got behind their side in a match billed as a final. And given that Osasuna had not won away for over a year, surely Malaga could triumph. Instead, the Osasuna defender Sergio Fernandez scored a superb 92nd-minute winner to condemn Malaga to yet another defeat.
At the foot of the table, Malaga are two points behind Almeria, three behind Hercules and four from safety. There are more worrying signs and not just on the playing front for a team which has used five goalkeepers so far this season.
The Qatari owners have been seen less and less around the club, while the acting chief executive recently flew to Qatar to ask for €25m. Players complained that they were not paid in February, while rivals have done likewise for not receiving transfer fees. Just six players have started more than half the league matches, a source of discontent.
Pellegrini has arguably his toughest job yet.
Italy: Roma need a rescue
Troubled Roma take on Lazio in the city derby tomorrow desperate to save their season after being eliminated from the Champions League in midweek.
They lost 6-2 on aggregate to Shakhtar Donetsk and go into the derby encounter in need of a victory to cut the five-point deficit on their rivals, who occupy the fourth and last Champions League qualifying spot.
Roma have won the side’s two previous meetings this season, but with Claudio Ranieri having left last month, the new coach Vincenzo Montella is now feeling the heat.
“A month ago we were all brilliant players so I don’t know why people are thinking differently now,” he said. “Nobody goes out there to lose. We know what the atmosphere will be like and the fans should know we’ll be giving it our all.”
Germany: 100 not out for Lahm
Philipp Lahm, the Bayern Munich defender, will make his 100th consecutive start as his team face Hamburg SV today, having played in every Bayern game since April 2009.
“Obviously there are days when you get tired or are a bit injured,” the German international told the club website.
“But this run is good because it shows that I have stayed healthy for a long time.”
Lahm, who has missed only 15 minutes in his last 99 games, being taken off in a German Cup game in 2009, said part of his healthy regime was sleeping for almost 10 hours a night. “I sleep a lot, on average about nine-and-a-half hours. It makes me feel good.”
Meanwhile, Borussia Dortmund could be without their top striker Lucas Barrios (calf) and the centre-back Mats Hummels (trapped nerve) when the league leaders play against Hoffenheim today, according to their coach, Juergen Klopp.
France: Vital time for Nancy
Reynald Lemaitre, the Nancy defender, believes it is vital that his side emerge victorious from their contests with the teams around them who are also fighting to avoid the drop to Ligue 2.
Nancy are one place and three points above the relegation zone heading into today’s match against Caen, with their opponents three points better off in 14th place.
Asked if this game could be a turning point in Nancy’s season, Lemaitre told his club’s website: “Yes, clearly. The next game against Monaco [who are 18th] is vital, as well, because we need points. A win would do us much good in the standings, but also boost us mentally. In this very tight league where six or seven teams will fight to maintain their place in the top flight, it is very important to negotiate these direct confrontations.”