Malaga poised to make splash in La Liga

September, 21, 2011
09/21/11
10:12
AM ET

"We want to build a team that will be capable of battling with the best in the league." These words, posted on Malaga CF's official website by owner Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani in October 2010, seemed fanciful at best. At the time, the side was languishing at the wrong end of the Liga table after the summer appointment of Jesualdo Ferreira, a respected Portuguese coach brought in from Porto, backfired spectacularly.

When he took over the club in July 2010, Al-Thani made a promise that in today's footballing climate appeared even more far-fetched than Malaga breaking into the jealously guarded Liga hierarchy. His was a team, after all, that counted as its greatest league achievement a pair of seventh-place finishes the 1970s, and that has spent more of its existence in the third division than the first.

Even Roger Moore's eyebrow could not have been raised further when Al-Thani announced that this was to be a long-term project. In La Liga, where only three serving managers have seen out more than three seasons in the top division, long-term usually means the period between August and May. And takeovers by supposed tycoons don't always go according to plan, either, as Racing Santander can attest after finding that Ahsan Ali Syed's pockets were empty.

But Al-Thani knew just the man to lead the Malaga revolution: Manuel Pellegrini, the grizzled Chilean who had taken Villarreal -- a side that can comfortably seat half the population of its town in its 25,000-capacity stadium -- to the latter stages of the Champions League and UEFA Cup as well as a runner-up spot in La Liga in 2007-08.

Pellegrini arrived on the south coast having been discarded by Real Madrid for the "failure" of a second-place league showing and despite a club-record 96 points, as well as for bowing out of Europe's elite competition at the first knockout hurdle, as Real had in the previous five seasons.

When Pellegrini arrived back on Spanish soil, Jose Mourinho could not resist a little dig, claiming that if he were to leave Real, it would not be for a minnow like Malaga.

But the Anchovies are making the right moves toward becoming one of the bigger fish in the ever-dwindling Liga pond. Al-Thani, a member of the Qatar royal family, is not short of cash. His wallet went some way toward keeping Malaga in the division last season, with Julio Baptista performing particularly heroically. During this summer, the club was linked to some faintly ridiculous names -- Wesley Sneijder among them -- but instead it opted for a blend of experience, youth and at least one player in his prime, record signing Santi Cazorla. Ruud van Nistelrooy has yet to find the net for Malaga, but there is enough in the old warhorse's legs to terrorize La Liga's leakier defenses. At the back of Pellegrini's team, Dutch international Joris Mathijsen joined Spain international Nacho Monreal, while wily winger Joaquin was brought in from Valencia. Spain under-21 international Isco also left the east coast for the south in what, whether intentional or not, represented some judicious preening of Malaga's closest rivals' shiniest talents.

Until Atletico Madrid threw its Kun Aguero cash at Radamel Falcao and Barca's badgering of Arsenal finally delivered Cesc Fabregas, Malaga had spent 60 million euros during the summer, more than any other Liga club and most of Europe's heavyweights.

With Valencia weakened by the loss of Juan Mata, and Villarreal by Cazorla's 21 million euro sale, Malaga was ready to aim for the heights. The target, set loosely by the club, is the Europa League this season, Champions League the next. That is not unrealistic. Valencia leads the table at present but has a thin squad compared to Pellegrini's. Villarreal looks like a shadow of its former self after a handful of games but should recover to bother the top six by season's end. Sevilla is in flux with Marcelino adjusting to his more grandiose surroundings after a spell at Racing. And Athletic Bilbao is coming to terms with the notion of using its midfield and not aiming the ball at Fernando Llorente's head under new coach Marcelo Bielsa. Atletico Madrid's prospective fortunes are a topic even Nostradamus wouldn't touch.

In short, the time is ripe for a usurper to the established order.

Wednesday night's visitor to La Rosaleda, Athletic, will prove a litmus test for Malaga. An opening day loss to Sevilla was no disaster -- players under a new coach often find their form on the first day of the season -- and followed by home and away wins with five goals scored and none conceded. Athletic was expected to put in a strong showing this term and push for the Champions League itself with a young, talented team and an attack-minded coach to guide it. Things haven't quite panned out for Athletic yet, but the Lions are traditionally slow starters who find their voice best when hemmed into a corner.

For Malaga and Pellegrini, time is not really of the essence. A hands-off owner, Al-Thani will allow his coach time to build that team he promised last year. With unlimited cash but a sensible business model -- the sheikh has a two-man advisory team, including former Spanish Federation employee Antonio Fernandez, who brought Dani Alves to Sevilla in his time there -- and a coach who in Liga terms served a lifetime at the helm of Villarreal, Malaga is on the verge of making just the splash a stagnant Liga could do with.

"Last December we had to persuade players to come to Malaga," Fernandez said during the summer. "Now they don't even need to think about it."

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