One of the biggest football stories of the summer so far in Spain has undoubtedly been Malaga's continued spending and the growing excitement surrounding their prospects for the future. With their riches from the Middle East continually adding to a strong side that seems capable of asserting themselves in the top half of La Liga, combined with a capable coach in Manuel Pellegrini, some Spanish football followers are asking themselves if Malaga could potentially be an unlikely challenger to the unrivalled dominance that the clasico pair have maintained in domestic Spanish football in recent years. Here is a look at a team on the rise:
Their saviour, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani, announced his arrival a year ago with low key optimism - "Our goal is to help Malaga take the necessary steps to consolidate its presence in La Liga". His words didn’t exactly fuel the kind of ‘nothing is impossible’ euphoria that Manchester City fans felt a few years ago, or signal an intent to throw millions about like spare change. Imminent transfer dealings didn’t really help a sense that, despite the boundless riches of this particular Qatari, Malaga weren’t exactly on the shortest road to becoming a European force. Solomon Rondon from Las Palmas? Enzo Maresca from Olympiacos? Fans who had hoped for a mammoth spending total were quickly let down, and Malaga’s season began very poorly. Even the most optimistic of their supporters must have doubted the team's ability to turn things around.
With the appointment of the experienced Manuel Pellegrini in November, things appeared to be looking up. Also on its way upwards was the club’s spend total – with bigger names like Bayern’s Demichaelis, Atletico’s Asenjo, and Julio ‘the Beast’ Baptista, formerly of Real Madrid and Arsenal FC, on their way in the winter transfer window. The one thing that still seemed to be going down, though, was the team itself. Even by the middle of February, the club was still rock bottom despite their investments, and the fulfilment of Al-Thani’s initial aspiration of consolidation seemed unlikely.
Then the goals began to come, thick and fast. Following an embarrassing 7 goal thrashing at the Bernabeu, Rondon and Julio Baptista went into overdrive up front. After arriving in January, Baptista scored 9 in 11 games. Rondon proved his status as easily one of the top buys of the season, more than repaying his club record €3.5m fee by netting 14 times from only 28 starts. Off the back of a 5 game winning streak for the first time in their history, Malaga soared from twentieth to a highly respectable 11th place finish.
A respectable year indeed, but this is a club with newfound ambitions and, unlike so many others in Spain, the genuine financial clout to assert themselves into the Champions League spots and beyond. The ease with which a Barcelona B side took Malaga apart on the final day of the season must have emphasised to Sheikh Al-Thani that more additions were necessary, and so with the beginning of a new summer transfer window came a frenzy of activity that has so far shown little sign of letting up.
With 8 players signed and more new recruits looking likely, the excitement is palpable among the blue and white supporters. This is perhaps most strongly evidenced by the turnout for mere player presentations, with thousands upon thousands of fans turning out to see each new player hold up a scarf, juggle a ball and wave a flag. While this may be the norm in the Camp Nou, it’s anything but in La Rosaleda. Former Real and Manchester United goal-machine Ruud Van Nistelrooy was first to arrive, coming from Germany to kick start what some have referred to as ‘the Malaga project’. In recent weeks, such fanfare has been matched over and over again with the likes of Joaquin from Valencia (once regarded among the best in Spain), Dutch international defender Joris Mathijsen, and expensive French volante Jeremy Toulalan setting pulses racing on the Southern coast.
Other under the radar dealings include the purchases of Spain international fullback Nacho Monreal from Osasuna, making DeMichaelis’ loan permanent, and swooping for Sevilla’s Sergio Sanchez, who completed a remarkable return from heart problems last season. It is clear that, while most of these players do bring individual quality, Malaga have encouragingly placed building a team at the forefront of their plans, rather than spending big money on stars with little regard for how they can mould them together.
However, with a Sheikh on board, the Spanish media are playing their part in ensuring that no player is now off limits from being linked with a move to la Rosaleda. Reports suggest that Pellegrini is on the lookout for the jewel of their potential crown, un crack – the technically talented star who can become the face of a contender, increase attendences, and excel under the freedom the Chilean coach likes to grant his attackers. Santi Cazorla of Villarreal has been the name most commonly linked, with Malaga reportedly having bid in excess of €20m for the winger. Even Palermo’s president has declared that, in the battle for the signature of his coveted Argentine ace Javier Pastore, "the favourites are Real Madrid and Malaga", such is the extent of the dent this smaller club is making on the European market.
In their current shape, Pellegrini’s men should certainly improve on last season’s finish and could expect to see themselves challenging for the Europa League spots come the business end of the season. Moreover, with a bit of luck and the signing of a true star like Pastore or Cazorla, even higher is not unrealistic. A combination of stability, continued financial backing, and balance would certainly put them on course to becoming a La Liga force in the next few years. Due to Spain’s unfair TV rights system, foreign ownership seems the only way smaller clubs can challenge the top two’s dominance.
And that’s exactly what this 'project' is intent on doing. So, Barcelona beware, the Malaga revolution is well and truly underway.
Follow me on Twitter @NotTooXavi