The historically perennial yo-yo club Malaga have enjoyed the riches of being owned by a billionaire since 2010, and their lavish spending this summer whetted the appetites of the neutral fan hoping to see the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona demolished.
The attraction of ‘El Clasico’ is humongous, but with it sees a Spanish Primera Division struggling for competition because of the financial equality. Television rights are negotiated individually, which has led to the giant separation in revenue, a system which saw Sevilla President Jose Maria del Nido label La Liga as “not the biggest mess in Europe, but in the world.”
Malaga, like Manchester City and Paris St Germain in recent times (although not Getafe) have been lucky enough to be acquired by an eastern tycoon. Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal Family, bought the club from former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz for around €25 million last year, and has given the club a whole new feel.
The revolution needed a manager who could use his wealth of experience to guide the team slowly towards glory and Jesualdo Ferreira seemed a good candidate. At 64, the Portuguese manager came with a glowing reputation after his success at Porto and ability to nurture talent like Ricardo Quaresma and Lisandro Lopez. He lasted just under five months and left a team lacking confidence and quality. A few decent players had been signed in the summer like the impressive Salomon Rondon from Las Palmas and the impish Sebastian Fernandez, but the squad lacked leaders and depth to challenge for European football.
However it is still a world away from times as recent as 2008 when they were in the Segunda Division and hardly revelling in financial freedom. From that squad who got promoted to La Liga only: captain Jesus Gamez, Apono and defenders Eliseu, Helder Rosario and Weligton remain.
At the second time of asking the Andalucian outfit appointed a coach to lead them in the right direction. Manuel Pellegrini had been sacked from Real Madrid at the end of the previous campaign despite seeing his team set a new club record of 96 for most points accumulated in a season and having a win percentage of 75%. The Chilean however is highly regarded in Spain, and is fondly remembered for his tenure at Villarreal. He has made the mission clear:
“Here in Malaga we’re starting a new project this year and it’d be great if we could be successful from the off. But the aim of this project is to improve year on year and close the gap as much as possible within a reasonable time frame.”
In January came Sergio Asenjo on loan from Atletico, who was trying to rebuild his career after a long-term knee injury, but succumbed to the same type of injury in his other knee. Astute, cheap, experienced players like: Enzo Maresca, Julio Baptista and the eccentric Martin Demichelis were signed and helped guide the team to a stable but underwhelming 11th place.
This campaign however is the season of expectation for Malaga. Real Madrid legend Fernando Hierro was appointed General Manager in July and his sporting vision – the former Sporting Director of the Spanish FA – could be pivotal to help his hometown club establish their name amongst Europeans elite. The owners gave the Chilean coach the freedom to invest, and he obliged without being profligate, spending near enough €60m.
Only six years ago Joaquin Sanchez was regarded as one of the most exciting wingers in the world. A failed move to Chelsea saw him join Valencia where he achieved moderate success, but the ability to attract the 30-year-old for €4m and wages excess of €80k-a -week is a coup. Experienced Internationals like Jeremy Toulalan, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have also been signed to guide some of the younger players and improve the squads quality.
Los Boquerones have also been able to attract several of Spain’s best players. Left-back Nacho Monreal joined for €6m from Osasuna, Sergio Sanchez was signed for a modest €2.8m from Sevilla after a difficult two-year spell which saw him have a heart scare and a year away from the game. The exciting attacking midfielder Isco, likened to David Silva, joined for €6m from Valencia. As well as these signings the club have embedded a few youngsters from the B side, Atlético Malagueño, into the team over the past year such as Jose Recio, Francisco Portillo and Juanmi Jimenez but the biggest signing shows just how powerful this club looks to be getting.
Santi Cazorla was an integral part of the Villarreal team, who over the past few years have been a permanent fixture in European competitions. The creative midfielder is a marquee signing who can conjure mesmeric masterpieces with a swoosh of the boot. The €21m acquisition was reluctant to leave El Submarino Amarillo but the club on a modest budget could not refuse money like that. Cazorla has been joined in the creative department by Diego Buonanotte, a talented Argentine from River Plate, who will be glad to leave Argentina after recent personal problems. The 5’3″ forward joins as an unfulfilled talent, but his unpredictability is an exciting trait.
The 2010/11 campaign has seen mixed results. After 10 games Malaga sit sixth in the table, but inconsistent form has seen them lose four games already. Van Nistelrooy has looked half the player he was when he was previously in Spain, with Real Madrid, but he is not the only player struggling for goals.
Like the Dutchman, forwards Rondon and Baptista have only scored one league goal while the Uruguayan Fernandez has yet to score. The top goalscorer is Cazorla on four and it’s clear to see this newly moulded team needs time to gel. Indeed the manager is having problems finding his best eleven. Eliseu, naturally a winger, has been given the nod over Monreal so far at left-back. A spearhead for the team has yet to be fully instilled and they have Baptista still to come back into a side with Joaquin, Cazorla, Duda and Isco all looking good in the advanced roles.
How far can this side go? It is too early to say, but the potential is there. Pellegrini has invested well but they lack a top quality keeper with Willy Caballero currently being the main man between the sticks. As long as mercurial characters such as Quincy Owusu–Abeyie are kept away, this squad can challenge for a Champions League spot within the next 18 months. The fans will hope the club do not lose their way on producing talents from the cantera with the new found temptation to just purchase players.