Tuesday saw Champions League debutants Málaga close out their impressive group campaign with a 2-2 draw against Anderlecht. As entertaining as the match was, the hard work was long since done. Already assured of top spot, they join Spain's other three entrants in the draw for the first knockout phase.
|Málaga's colourful support want to keep on living the dream|
The way they've taken this competition in their stride has been most unexpected. True, they had the fortune to face a Milan side in crisis and a Zenit under the cloud of a civil war, but then they've had troubles of their own to surmount.
They lost their best player in the summer, and their best striker has yet to take the field. And behind the scenes sporting director Fernando Hierro, recruited from the national federation to add a veneer of footballing respectability to the 'project', also walked before the season got underway.
Not that you'd know it given the ease with which they progressed. They won their first three games, and didn't concede a goal until the fourth; their sixth in all, including qualifiers. But they've been on a wretched run domestically since sealing their passage, as Tuesday's goalscorer Duda alluded to on Spanish radio.
“We needed a game like that be reminded of how well we can play at this level.” Asked how it felt to go through in top spot, the Portuguese was a little more coy. “We've demonstrated that we were the best team here. But we don't think about the seeding now. The important thing is to be there in the mix.”
It's been a rollercoaster ride everywhere if not on the field itself. At the start of last season, the sky seemed the limit. First, there were the transfers, an eminently sensible mixture of experience and promise. On the technical side, they looked to building the foundations of future stability. Many grew giddy in anticipating that one day maybe — just maybe — they might even be capable of challenging the big two for league titles.
From above too, common sense seemed to be the watchword. Rather than place unnecessary pressure on the coach Manuel Pellegrini, the explicit aim was to reach the Europa League places. But as they closed in on a Champions League place ahead of schedule in the spring, it all started to fall apart.
It was in April the first rumblings that something was amiss emerged. Their marquee signing Santi Cazorla let it out that wage payments were behind, and throughout the summer it looked as if their billionaire backer Abdullah Al Thani was getting cold feet.
Speculation mounted that he was looking to offload the club, but instead he offloaded the family jewels. Cazorla moved to Arsenal for a fee reportedly lower than that which saw him join from Villarreal the summer before; a figure which Pellegrini decried as a 'theft'.
But here's the curious thing about Cazorla. If his worth can be amply stated in Villarreal going from fourth to relegation in the time it took for Málaga to go from near-relegation to the Champions League, his move to Arsenal has produced a peculiar result. Both sides appear to have improved as a result.
That's not to do the little magician a disservice, for he was arguably the best player in Spain's other La Liga last season — the La Liga where those outside the rarefied world of Barcelona and Real Madrid operate. But in his absence the excellent Isco has moved centre stage. If he was a relative unknown prior to this season then equally it's certain that clubs across Europe will have noted his current €15m buyout clause.
As important, of course, has been Pellegrini himself. A shrewd and urbane figure, he's guided them from the foot of the table to their current lofty station. José Mourinho's been taking a kicking this week from the Madrid based press, but that's nothing compared to what Pellegrini endured there. As they call for a more gentlemanly figure to bring more attractive football, the fact is the man who offered both wasn't spared as they queued up to throw rocks.
Back in Málaga, the situation remains delicate. Their recent slump hasn't significantly hurt their hopes of making Europe's premier competition again, the financial side is still in flux. The squad remains short on numbers and while Al Thani has promised to reduce the club's debt, he also wants a cut in running expenses. Having been away for so long, his recent visit before November's game against Rayo ironically coincided with the downturn in form.
But that said, with no continental distractions until February they look set to motor on. The sense of togetherness fostered amongst their ranks has stood them well, just as the prize money from Europe should allow for limited restrengthening in the transfer window. The overblown dreams of the grand project may be gone, but for now their supporters must still feel that they're living the dream.