x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Malaga spring a marvellous surprise in the Uefa Champions League

Fourth in their domestic league, the Primera Liga, it has been their success in the Uefa Champions League that has Malaga turning heads. Andy Mitten reports.

Midfielder Isco, centre, and his Malaga teammates have been the shock of the Uefa Champions League tournament.
Midfielder Isco, centre, and his Malaga teammates have been the shock of the Uefa Champions League tournament.

Malaga may be regretting the potentially generous terms attached to their Uefa Champions League season tickets at the start of the season.

The club, who qualified for the competition for the first time, having overcome Panathinaikos in a qualifier, sold three-game "Euroabono" tickets for their group-stage matches against the seven-time winners AC Milan, the big spending Zenit Saint Petersburg and Anderlecht.

Given that Malaga appeared to be in a financial meltdown last August, few expected them to reach the knock-out stages, though holders of the Euroabono were informed that if they did, any subsequent games would be free of charge.

Malaga were the surprise of the group stage, winning their first three matches and becoming the first team to qualify as they topped their group.

Fans who filled the 29,000-seat Estadio La Rosaleda described the Milan win as the greatest moment supporting their club, but they are already having to reassess such opinions.

On Wednesday, Malaga overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to beat Porto 2-0 in Spain.

Isco, the 20-year-old midfielder, scored the first to level the tie, and the substitute Roque Santa Cruz, on loan from Manchester City, produced the winner to trigger scenes of ecstasy from the fans, who included the actor Antonio Banderas.

Ruud van Nistelrooy also returned to see his former teammates triumph.

Malaga had played in Europe only once before, in the 2002/03 Uefa Cup, after winning the maligned InterToto Cup - their only trophy.

The city of 560,000, Spain's fifth-largest, has caught Champions League fever.

Nearly 3,000 Malaga fans travelled to Porto for the first leg and they awaited yesterday's draw with an enthusiasm seldom seen by the more familiar names who reach the last eight.

Malaga drew Borussia Dortmund, and those fans who paid just €121 (Dh580) for their Euroabono tickets will again watch the home leg for free.

It is the best deal in football this season, not that a Spanish media who focus on the big two have given "little" Malaga the credit they deserve for reaching the last eight.

The achievement was largely ignored, though a special front-page edition of Marca (at least the regional edition that covers Andalusia) carried the headline: "The Greats - Malaga enter football's aristocracy".

Malaga Hoy wrote that "Wembley is the limit".

Manuel Pellegrini, the former Villarreal and Real Madrid coach, is Malaga's manager, and of his overachieving team he said: "We couldn't let the people down."

Those people had experienced the highs of big-name transfer arrivals after Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, took control for €36m in 2010.

The new owners spent another €56m on star players such as Martin Demichelis, Santi Cazorla, Van Nistelrooy and Jeremy Toulalan, lifting the mood in a region bearing the brunt of Spain's economic crisis.

Demichelis and Toulalan are still at the club, but Malaga's success is not only thanks to football mercenaries.

The Brazilian defender Weligton, the Portuguese winger Eliseu and the Spanish defender Jesus Gamez have all been regulars this season.

All were with the club when they played in the second division in 2008.

Isco, a local boy bought from Valencia, is the star who has attracted the greatest attention and could be a possible summer departure.

His might not be the only departure.

Pellegrini, the cool Chilean coach, has let nobody down. His stock remains high and he is touted for jobs at bigger clubs.

But the Porto victory came against the backdrop of shaky league form. Malaga are fourth on goal difference over Real Sociedad, who have a far better recent record.

They have not won in three games and have suffered dips in form all season. They win and lose in clusters.

Nobody knows why.

Selling Cazorla to Arsenal for an initial fee of just €15m before the season started did not help.

Nor did selling the full-back Nacho Monreal to the same club on the final day of the January transfer window for a reported €10m.

Malaga entertain Espanyol on Sunday needing a win to keep them in the top four, not that it matters as much as it should; Malaga are banned by Uefa from playing in Europe next season because they failed to pay player wages and tax bills on time.

The fans feel the ban is unfair, not that they were obsessing about it on Friday, while planning their trips to Germany.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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