x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Uefa Champions League: Malaga's Julio Baptista is back in position and rediscovered scoring ways

Journeyman Julio Baptista has returned from an Achilles injury and found his scoring touch before Malaga's date with Borussia, writes Andy Mitten.

Julio Baptista of Malaga snapped an 18-month scoreless streak on Saturday. Manuel Alonso / Getty Images
Julio Baptista of Malaga snapped an 18-month scoreless streak on Saturday. Manuel Alonso / Getty Images

The loudest cheers inside Malaga's Rosaleda Stadium during this momentous season came during epic victories over AC Milan, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid and, most recently, Porto, a triumph which earned them a place in the Uefa Champions League last eight and Wednesday's home game against Borussia Dortmund.

Those cheers, however, were rivalled a month ago when Julio Baptista rose from the bench against Real Zaragoza. They became louder when he entered the pitch as a substitute following 16 months of frustration with a complex Achilles injury.

The crowd favourite Baptista is back at the right time, back to form, too, if his performance at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday is a marker.

He scored his first goal in 18 months in Malaga's 3-1 win at Vallecas. Having gone four league matches without a victory, they needed it – not that they have European competitions to qualify for next season, having been banned by Uefa for financial irregularities.

After starting out for Sao Paulo, his city of birth, Baptista moved to Sevilla in 2003, scoring 25 goals in his first season and playing with such power and aggression that he earned his moniker: The Beast

The goals were not expected. He had played as a defensive midfielder in Brazil and it was as a midfielder that Sevilla signed him.

When his coach saw him play up front in training, he decided to try him for real. It worked. Baptista scored another 25 goals in his second season playing like a Brazilian Mark Hughes, fast on the floor and powerful in the air.

His giant thighs and barrel chest saw defenders bounce off him on he pitch, yet he had a squeaky off it.

Arsenal and Real Madrid made offers of €25 million (Dh117.9m) in 2004 and Baptista chose Madrid. It did not quite work out.

He was played out of position on the left to accommodate bigger names, but still scored nine times in 2004/05. One was an overhead kick at Camp Nou against Barcelona, but Baptista did not impress enough among the trophyless Galacticos.

He did not want to leave, but agreed to go on loan to Arsenal in a swap with Jose Antonio Reyes in 2005. Again, he did not meet expectations; he scored just three in 24 league games as Arsene Wenger's interest waned. A second spell at Madrid did not improve his reputation, nor did nearly three seasons at Roma, to whom Malaga paid €2.5m to secure his services – a 10th of his fee six years earlier.

He finally regained his form. Perhaps it was the Andalusian air that did him good; more likely it was operating as a central striker.

Baptista's nine goals in 11 games ensured he was the key to Malaga staying up in 2010, the man fans saw as their saviour in the year they came under Qatari ownership.

Players with bigger name arrived and other players left, but the love for Baptista endured, even though he started just four matches last term.

Injuries meant an end to his Brazil career after an impressive 47 caps, but he still roars on. And he is back at exactly the right time.

Baptista has started five games in the past month, coming on in two more. His coach, Manuel Pellegrini, maintains that he has a big future at Malaga, again underdogs, this time against the 1997 Champions League winners.

Of all the players, Baptista is the one who most wants to show the world that he is not finished. Tonight, he has that chance.

sports@thenational.ae

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