Matchday 17 of the 2015-16 La Liga season, a topsy-turvy Malaga made its visit to the Estadio Vicente Calderon. Malaga, with a recent win over Rayo were slightly confident heading into this encounter. They have had a mixed bag of results this season but at the same time they looked impressive against the top drawers like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and many more. They did show that against Atletico as well and eventually ran out as 1-0 winners. They battle mid table teams this time around and could be fighting relegation as well if things just really don’t go their way. Quite an unpredictable state of events. Mind you, this is that same team that had almost knocked out Borussia Dortmund back in quarter finals of the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League season (where the latter went on to cruise to the final and losing to Bayern Munich eventually in the process). The team had improved leaps and bounds during its golden era back then. A transition from a relegation team to UCL challengers, something remarkable to say the least. The team stood tall challenging the top teams of the Spanish division and also disposed the usual challengers for the Champions League spot. They were slowly turning out to be a force to be reckoned with. But how did the Andalusians become this powerful? Let’s find out.
The Qatari takeover at Malaga
Back in 2010, the club was suffering an economic turmoil. Then president of the club Fernando Sanz could not do anything much himself to save the club. Luckily enough for him and later for the club, he found suitable investors in Doha, Qatar. The club was put into sale and the club was later purchased by Sheikh Abdullah ben Nasser Al Thani, a businessman in Qatar who belongs to its royal family. And later on, he was named the primary owner who takes care of the finances and also was named the president of the club. He started a new project for Los Boquerones. He had a dream of establishing the club at the highest of levels. He had looked for inspiration towards Manchester City, another club owned by an Arab businessman, which was scaling the heights of European football. He grew ambitious about starting the project by the passing second and also gave the fans some new optimism. The club named former Porto coach Jesualdo Ferreira as their new coach, and started the project bleakily. With an indifferent form in the 2010-11 season just denting their expected goals, they decided to sack Jesualdo and replaced him with Manuel Pellegrini who was sacked by Real Madrid during preseason. Things actually began taking shape. Manuel with the recent experience of Real Madrid behind him, vowed to repay the faith the Qatari owners had in him. Come the January transfer window, Manuel made it clear that to win the games, they should reform and quality players will be needed in the squad. He strengthened the side by getting Martin Demichelis and Julio Baptista, also procuring young Spanish hotshot Ignacio Camacho from Atletico Madrid in the winter of 2011, and the result saw an upturn of fortunes. They finished at a surprising 11th position that season.
The Rise of the Andalusians
The coming season of 2011-12 saw a complete overhaul in the Los Boquerones squad. The team did everything possible with the backing of a rich owner. They signed top class players in the transfer window. They got the mixture of youth in Isco from Valencia, Diego Buonanotte from River Plate, and experience in Joris Mathijsen from Hamburg, Jeremy Toulalan from Lyon, Joaquin from Valencia, and Dutch legend Ruud van Nistelrooy from Hamburg as well. They also bagged Spanish internationals in Nacho Monreal from Osasuna and also a marquee in Santi Cazorla from Villarreal. They were very much ready to compete with the big dogs. During that season Pellegrini established a new philosophy. He had made Isco his attacking centerpiece, taking full advantage of his dribbling and playmaking skillset and linked him with the ambidextrous Santi Cazorla in either of wings. He also made Venezuelan striker Jose Salomon Rondon his first choice striker. Rondon who was known for his strength and good poaching ability could cope well with the crosses coming in from Monreal as well as the linkups with Isco and Cazorla behind him, not to forget Joaquin. Isco was given the nod mostly ahead of Julio Baptista, whose season was plagued with injuries, thereby unleashing his brilliance. The season started with a 2-1 loss to Sevilla. Followed by a run of 4 wins in the next five games, Malaga stood firm in their quest for competition. They looked largely unraveled by the presence of other big teams in the competition as they established themselves in contention for at least a Champions League spot. With the unlikeliest of title challenges coming in from surprising Levante, Malaga did not look like the surprise team there. They looked more brash, had their share of eye catching displays against fellow contenders Valencia, Atletico Madrid and many others. Over the course of the season their form was getting indifferent by the passing match, but mostly towards the positive side. Their best performance that season arguably had to be the 5-1 drubbing of Espanyol. The side really stood strong on all forefronts in that game. Notable contributions came from the Uruguayan Sebastian Fernandez. He had made his presence felt in almost all games with either a goal or an assist and did the same in that game as well. An understated impact to say the least. Goals came in from Isco, Seba, Demichelis, Rondon and an own goal from Paulo da Silva. The team later on went to finish 4th and qualify for the Champions League for the first time in its history. A remarkable achievement for the Albicelestes. And half their goal was achieved because of it. Along with collective feat, an individual brilliance was also acclaimed for the season. Young starlet Isco was awarded the ‘Golden Boy’ award for the best young player in Europe. The team was actually growing and the ambition surely paid dividends.
2012-13 Champions League run and the course ahead
The next season turned out to be the best season in the club’s history. The team had finally stood tall in the domestic division and was competing in the Champions League. They qualified for the playoff round to enter into the group stages. The team had to sell off some of its main players in Cazorla and Rondon to Arsenal and Rubin Kazan respectively ,to come to terms with the then recently imposed Financial Fair Play rule. Mathijsen was another player, sold because of the same reason. But the Andalusians acted quick in replacing them. They signed experienced players in Javier Saviola and Roque Santa Cruz and tweaked their style a bit. The whole of creativity job relied more on Isco with support coming in from the wingbacks, more often than not due to the absence of Cazorla. Also Santa Cruz and Saviola shared their responsibilities to lead the attack. The team also got Uruguay captain Diego Lugano midway through the season to add some steel to their backline and also for European experience. They defeated Panathinaikos in the playoffs to progress through to the group stages. They started off the campaign with a 1-0 win against Celta De Vigo. And later went unbeaten for the next 6 gameweeks. Los Boquerones were paired with AC Milan, Anderlecht and Zenit St, Petersburg in the group stages of the Champions League. They started their first ever European campaign with a 3-0 win over Zenit, followed by wins over Anderlecht and Milan and later drawing against the very same teams. They progressed to the Round of 16 unbeaten and won the group, with Milan finsihing behind them. Along with the Champions League, their league campaign was going smooth as well. Their best performance came up in the league against Valencia where they defeated the Los Che 4-0. They also defeated defending champions Real Madrid 3-2 in a game full of backroom controversies for their opponents. Meanwhile in the Champions League they faced Porto in the Round of 16. They lost the first leg 1-0 but later came back 2-0 to win the tie and progress to the quarter finals. They were drawn against Borussia Dortmund in the quarter finals; two sides filled with young talents. The teams were spearheaded by the best young talents in the world in Isco and Mario Gotze. The first leg ended in a goalless draw. But the second leg was arguably one of the best games of the season for any football fan. From a position where Malaga almost qualified for the semi-finals to just a mere quarter finalist in just two minutes. Joaquin had got the visitors the lead which was cancelled by Robert Lewandowski after 15 minutes. Portuguese winger Eliseu had got the visitors back in the hunt in the 82nd minute, almost confirming Malaga’s spot in the semi-finals. Then what followed was nothing short of a miracle. Marco Reus brought the hosts level in the first minute of added time. Even had the scoreline remained the same Malaga would have progressed due to the away goal rule. Then out of nowhere Reus’ shot went to Felipe Santana who was standing right near the goal line, and he slotted it in, thereby leading Dortmund into the semi-finals of the competition. It was nothing less than a heartbreak for the Los Boquerones. A side completely confident of heading into the latter stages thanks to the circumstances and the brand of football they played, had to bow out owing to a loss of concentration in the dying minutes of the game. They finished the league in the 6th spot, with an impressive points tally. But a tragedy followed it and Malaga could never recover from that.
Financial Fair Play problems and the Downfall
Malaga were hit by the Financial Fair Play rule recently imposed by UEFA, where the spending of the team exceeds the set budget rule. They were also in debt to the UEFA along with several other clubs. They had no choice then but to sell all their top players. Isco, who was a hot property was sold to league rivals Real Madrid for €30 million. Joaquin was sold to Fiorentina, Martin Demichelis to Atletico (later moving to Man City) and many other mainstays were sold in order to clear the debt. Because of the FFP snag, they were disqualified from European Competitions upon grounds of contention in qualification. Malaga also let go of their manager Manuel Pellegrini to Manchester City, and replaced him with Bernd Schuster. The team had looked weaker by the passing second and lost all it had. It also led to their downfall as they dropped down to 11th again in La Liga in the next season, back to square one. They looked a mere shadow of themselves from the previous season. Though the style of Bernd Schuster looked attractive, but he was sacked because of failing to deliver the Champions League spot. Complete downfall to say the least. Imagine what could have been, had they still been that competent. Malaga out of nowhere gave the likes of Valencia, Villarreal, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla and others hard time for the Champions League spots. The La Liga being a two-horse race between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the rest tried to collectively give them a tough time in the competition and also among each other for the two remaining spots. Malaga had stood once as one of the best teams in Spain but only for a short time. They could not remain the same, thanks to FFP restrictions and are now just a mid-table team. So this has how the things have gone down the drain for Los Boquerones. The ambition the owners had and the revolution it had brought was truly short lived. If they had time on their side, they could have become serious title contenders and you never know, something more could have happened to the club which was looking on its way up. But safe to say, the revolution lasted just too short for them.