Magnificent Isco leads Malaga to quarterfinals

Posted by David Cartlidge

On a night which Malaga built up for themselves as a battle, they came away as the victor, and a place in a Champions League quarterfinal and history was their spoils. And it must also be said, it was their deserved spoils.

No one stood out brighter in the battle than Isco, the young, vibrant, gifted, creative midfield wizard. Playing a part in both goals, with an assist and a stunning strike to his name, his was the sort of platform that we'll no doubt see the Spaniard play on for many a year. His first goal was, quite aptly, a piece of magic plucked out of nowhere.

- Santa Cruz goal sends Malaga to last eight

The game in the early stages was a tetchy affair, swinging back and forth between two teams desperate to grab what they desired. In that desperation, however, they became unsighted and in flew rash challenges, misplaced passes and too few spells of genuine quality on display. It looked in the early going that Joao Moutinho might take hold of the game as he offered passages of play above the level of everyone else.

With Malaga looking more the nervous and in need of a pendulum swing, it came from a special source. Isco, still only 20 years old and playing his first Champions League tournament this season, drifted in from being marooned out wide and delivered a killer strike into the top corner of Helton and Porto's net. Those in La Rosaleda, themselves getting impatient, erupted like never before. It was almost romantic that on the biggest night in the club's history, a local boy, born down the road in Benalmadena, would set them on their way.

Isco's movement continued to be devilish before and after the halftime whistle, as he whizzed around the field without the ball and jinked past challenge after challenge while on it. There was a sparkle in his footsteps and one in his eye, too. The stage, so enormous, did not engulf his abundant talent. When he kissed the badge after scoring, he did it for every ball kicked in the little town of under 100,000 inhabitants he grew up in and he did it for every Malaga fan who has suffered this season. The player sales, UEFA ban, unpaid wages, the constant state of uncertainty -- for a moment all forgotten. David Villa said last night that "moments like this [scoring a goal in the Champions League] make you forget all the bad."

Ask any of the 30,000 or so inside La Rosaleda and they would concur.

"It has been historical," Isco stated on a popular Spanish radio show after the game. Indeed it was. It is Malaga's first Champions League competition, and with that they make the quarterfinals for the first time in their history. A little pride can be found too in that they became the first side from Andalucia to ever make this stage. With three teams in the quarterfinals, Spain can be proud, too. It happens to be the first time since 2003, when Valencia joined Barcelona and Real Madrid, that it has been the case. Malaga's situation, swimming with adversity, perhaps makes them the most admirable out of the three.

You could tell how much they wanted it too, sometimes even becoming slightly overeager. They managed to eventually find their patience and rhythm, however, that kept them in the ascendancy. If they lacked a personality in the first leg, a game in which they managed just two shots on target, then they certainly found one here. It was by all means given to them by Manuel Pellegrini.

Pellegrini has now led his second side debuting in the competition to the quarterfinals, following his inspired and incredible work during the 2005-2006 Champions League campaign with an unknown Villarreal side. He called for a perfect, intelligent game from his side, and although at times Malaga struggled to deal with the occasion, eventually they found a heartbeat: the team ethic. Jesus Gamez and Weligton were colossal at the back, while Jeremy Toulalan enforced expertly in midfield. Joaquin and Isco meanwhile toiled away in attack, the former appearing at times to be the same age as the latter -- even though 11 years separate them.

A second-half switch by Pellegrini was an instant inspiration, with Roque Santa Cruz entering the field to give presence in attack. The Paraguayan responded by putting away his first goal in the competition since 2006. A chaotic last 15-20 minutes, which Pellegrini said after the game that he wasn't happy with, had the supporters on the edge of their seats until the final whistle sounded. The noise was ferocious as the Malaga bench emptied onto the field with scenes of jubilation all around. La Rosaleda vibrated as one with the supporters now on their feet, dancing in the aisles of the stadium.

"Yes we can," the stadium sang before and throughout the game. Pellegrini's final words of the night evoked images of Barack Obama, too, the Chilean declaring he "couldn't fail the people."

He certainly didn't, and as he did with this team, he galvanized them.

ESPN Conversations