Minimal damage for Malaga

Posted by David Cartlidge

The steam finally ran out for a Malaga side being spurred on by fumes rather than fuel this season, as they offered a disappointing performance in the Estadio do Dragao. A 1-0 scoreline suggests this one was a typically cagey European clash, but it was anything but with Porto controlling from the first minute. When the whistle blew in the final minute, Malaga's relief was evident.

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Manuel Pellegrini spoke of ambition prior to the game and how he'd retain the style that has prospered so well in the competitions this season, but there was no glimpse of it here. The Chilean's own tactical decisions were detrimental for one of few times this season, while there was a clear nervousness about his players and some indecision.

Isco was slotted out to wide, and when the ball did arrive at his gifted feet, Porto's midfield and defensive henchmen snapped at him instantly -- in his more comfortable central zone the Spaniard can dictate and decide games, but he was seldom handed opportunities to operate there. It was a task too tall for Julio Baptista, too, only a few weeks back into the first team squad after 16 months without football. The Brazilian was off the pace in both body and mind, becoming merely a spectator with those who had packed the Dragao, while alongside him Roque Santa Cruz looked elsewhere.

The pair had played under 10 minutes together prior to tonight and it showed. Pellegrini did admit his side were toothless going forward, regarding it as "one of the worst offensive displays we've done", and he could hardly ignore it after all. Javier Saviola will be looking at the scoreline eagerly and could be in line for a start in the return leg, with the Argentinean a livewire in and around the penalty area sniffing on any hint of defensive unease.

Amid all the negativity in Malaga's play and evidently questionable team choices, Pellegrini remained confident after the final whistle: "Despite all the possession they had [Porto], they didn't hurt us." He has a point, too. Rarely was Willy Caballero forced into a save despite neat approach play from the Portuguese champions, while Jackson Martinez moved fluidly but his final touch deceived him time and time again. The goal itself was shown to be offside, as replays and stills flashed across TV and the internet. However, Porto still certainly deserved some reward and will be disappointed not to have added further.

It will depend heavily on the state of Malaga's squad though, as tonight showed just how depleted the squad is following the heavy sales. On loan from Chelsea, teenager Lucas Piazon got a brief cameo in the second half while another youngster in Fran Portillo made an appearance. Nacho Camacho was the other change but he's a basic defensive-minded midfielder. There was little Pellegrini could really do to swing the tie in his favour and as the ball kept rebounding back on the edge of the Malaga penalty area, it was evident the task had become keep things tight and get out with this single goal deficit. In that regard they did succeed, but a hint of the ambition shown in the Zenit St. Petersburg and Anderlecht games wouldn't have gone amiss.

Pellegrini's mind was already on the March return leg at what will be a vociferous atmosphere in southern Spain: "We hope that at home, with more normality with the ball, we can overturn the deficit." Paramount to that will be creating a space for Isco to show off his many talents, the Spaniard has already grasped the responsibility at the club left by Santi Cazorla and will need to provide a season best performance at the Rosaleda. When he's active in games then the outcome is usually in Malaga's favour, with the elegant runs and viewing of the game, spaces that were not there before suddenly open up.

Pellegrini continued and issued emphasis on possession in the return leg: "With possession of the football we can turn the score around; it's perfectly feasible to do so at home."

Between now and the return leg, Malaga faces away trips to Real Betis and Real Valladolid, with a home clash against Atletico Madrid sandwiched in between. It will be hard for the small squad to keep attentions on two competitions, but with the likes of Valencia breathing down their necks domestically, it's something that will be necessary. A boost for the game at La Rosaleda will be the return of Eliseu, who, as it stands, will be fit after several weeks out through a knee injury. The Portuguese fullback is a massively important cog in attack and allows Isco to cut inside rather than stick to the touchline as he did in Tuesday night's game - one of the main sources of irritation in the analysis of the game.

The 3,000 Malaguistas who travelled to Portugal ended with a rendition of "Gangnam Style" in the stands of the Dragao, showing the perceived negativity on the pitch didn’t transfer. They'll be hoping they haven’t performed their last dance in this competition.

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