A great charm of Spanish football—you know, aside from their spectacular football—is that every season a different club seems to rise to the occasion and captures the imagination and heart of many across Europe. Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini would have been excused if his side had started slowly at the beginning of the season, stumbling along while trying to find some rhythm. The club from the Costa del Sol had been stripped of two of their assets during the summer in Santi Cazorla and Salomon Rondon, and owner Sheik Abdullah Al Thani had decided to put a halt to the cash injections that had catapulted them into the Champions League last season.
Athletic Bilbao quickly became everyone second favourite team last season following their highly disciplined but extraordinary performances against Manchester United in the Europa League, and Levante also drew many more admirers due to their start of season form last year.
Now it’s Malaga’s turn to take the necessary and hugely deserved praise, for even without the means to strengthen properly in the transfer window, they patched together a squad, built around midfield sensation Isco and waltzed their way into fourth place in the league. Not bad for a team who had the stuffing knocked out of them during a summer of uncertainty.
It’s always necessary to look to teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus as the shining beacons of the sport in Europe this season; they’re all performing exceptionally well in their domestic leagues and have the big name status to warrant all the attention and adulation. But spectators will always be drawn to the underdog, the team who have found themselves among the kings but really have no place there.
It would be hugely disrespectful to say Malaga and Pellegrini don’t belong among the giants of European football. They became one of the first teams to advance to the knock-out phase of the Champions League following their magnificent start in their debut season in Uefa’s elite competition. Wins against the might of AC Milan, the spending power of Zenit St. Petersburg and the ability to field a ‘weakened’ team and still remain unbeaten is enough to send waves across the continent. But they’re not riding their luck through the competition or in La Liga, Pellegrini has them playing fluid, attractive and attacking football: they very much deserve to be where they are.
Their most recent league win against Valencia was exactly what was needed from them for onlookers to see them as justifiable candidates for the top four in Spain again this season. The 4-0 win over Los Che was a performance that highlighted their ruthless ability to attack a wounded side and truly put them to the sword. The score line certainly didn’t flatter them on the day.
But you’ve got to wonder how much further they can go and how much longer they can keep it up. Pellegrini’s squad isn’t one which is littered with quality, while it only takes a lengthy injury to their talisman Isco for the wheels to come off. However, they’re seeing great progress and desire from players who would have been considered fringe players last season.
Ignacio Camacho has played superbly so far this season in the midfield role either as a replacement or alongside Jeremy Toulalan, and in the former Atletico Madrid player, the club have another gem who can only continue to help them push on in the future. There’s also depth in attack with two of Europe’s ‘outcasts’ in Javier Saviola and Roque Santa Cruz, both hugely experienced players.
The win against Valencia was one which put to bed an unfortunate trend so far this season, one which saw Malaga fail to record wins in any of their league games following a Champions League week. But as they grow into their responsibilities of European duty, they’ll become accustomed to how to evenly spread the weight and focus.
Bilbao did a fantastic job of reaching two finals last season but only finished in 10th place in the league. They were also a side who relied heavily on a small group of players to see them through, which by the end became extremely evident as the players looked mentally and physically drained. For Malaga, there isn’t two finals on offer for them to reach, as obviously no one sees them as a genuine contender to reach the Champions League final in May. But they are a team who are filled with heart and desire to move on from the disappointments of the summer. They’re a club emerging from the darkness with the intention to prove that they can continue to grow in Spanish football and become one of the most talked about names.
They will only reach the height of challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid for domestic honours if their owner decides he wants back in and is willing to invest. But regardless of those internal issues, Malaga have comfortably been one of the teams to watch this season. They don’t have the full house of attacking talents that you’d find elsewhere, nor are they the most glamorous, but they’re very much providing evidence that La Liga is alive beyond Barcelona and Real Madrid and that the fantastic football carpets the entire nation.