Malaga is not a club used to having the limelight focused on them, but for the first time in their 104-year history, fans, pundits and critics are all expectant.
With Malaga flirting with relegation in a frustrating first-half of the 2010-11 season, owner Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani sought to steady the ship by replacing Coach Jesualdo Ferreira with Manuel Pellegrini followed by the signings of seasoned-pros like Martin Demichelis, Enzo Maresca and Julio Baptista. The changes paid off as the side climbed to safety, eventually finishing 11th, but still just three points ahead of Deportivo La Coruna in the final relegation place.
However, following a summer of sustained investment in the team Al-Thani and Malaga’s ambitions stretch beyond just making up the numbers in La Liga.
This summer, the Anchovies have shelled out €53.5m on new players, and on some notable names. Jeremy Toulalan, Joaquin Sanchez and Santi Cazorla could help form one of the most exciting midfields in Spain this season, for a combined cost of €36.2m, whilst Nacho Monreal and Sergio Sanchez will help solidify a defence that conceded 68 goals last season – only relegated Almeria had a worse record with 70.
With great expenditure comes great expectation, as Real Madrid’s continuing example demonstrates. When you spend money, you invite pressure, even as it is not necessarily a guarantee for success.
For Malaga, the minimum expectation for this coming season is to qualify for the Europa League, for their first European football since 2003 when they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Boavista in the quarter-finals. Interestingly, recent history is on the team’s side.
Indeed, Valencia’s heavy transfer spend of summer 2006 included the €25m purchase of Malaga new-boy Joaquin and high-cost deals for Asier Del Horno and Fernando Morientes. This was followed with a fourth place finish in 2006-07, whilst Atletico Madrid spent over €50m during the summer of 2008, and followed that with a fourth-place finish in 2008-09
Similarly, Villarreal’s period of investment from 2003 to 2004 that saw the likes of Fabricio Coloccini, Jose Mari, Sonny Anderson, Diego Forlan, Juan Pablo Sorin and Juan Roman Riquelme arrive is perhaps the best example for Pellegrini to hold on to. With the squad securing UEFA Cup qualification in 2003-04, it was followed by Pellegrini’s arrival and his work that then led them to a remarkable third place in 2004-05.
However, where history is on the Coach’s side – suggesting the investment will be followed by a top-six finish – it is worth considering the competition for places this year. Sevilla, Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal will all consider themselves equally capable of the four European qualification slots available after Real and Barca, whilst Getafe and Espanyol are outside bets to also stake a claim.
Whilst Malaga have improved their playing squad, they face a number of teams more experienced in 38-game races, and with track records of consistency and strength, when under the right conditions, as Valencia and Villarreal demonstrated last term.
Despite last season’s close call with relegation, and the substantial competition facing Pellegrini and his players, anything less than a Europa League-place finish will undoubtedly be labeled as a failure. The financial support from Al-Thani has otherwise presented a substantial advantage over all but Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Spanish market and Malaga’s squad is significantly improved from last term, and it is expected to be reflected in some capacity on the pitch.
On paper, Malaga are one of the top six sides in Spain, but a look at their defence and the never-sure compatibility of new players makes their quest for success impossible to predict, but all the more fascinating to follow.