Monday, August 8, 2011
Anchovies aim to swim, not sink
The word igualdad isn't one that is heard too much anymore in La Liga. The Spanish term, meaning 'parity', has little place in Spain's top-tier these days what with Real Madrid and Barcelona's annual dominance of the division's remaining 18 clubs.
Third-place Valencia, who had an impressive 2010-11 season despite the departures of their two Davids, Silva and Villa, qualified for a Champions League spot but finished a staggering 21 points behind Jose Mourinho's men and 25 points behind Pep Guardiola's. Fourth in the table Villarreal were even further adrift at 34 points behind the champions and the top two in Spain lost only six league matches between them.
In recent times, this seemingly impregnable duopoly atop what is arguably the world's best football division has become the status quo, as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and each player's respective band of star-calibre team-mates continue to assert their supremacy over inferior opposition. But now, on the always-sunny Costa del Sol, a challenger to the two Spanish giants appears to be emerging.
Malaga CF, whose nickname actually translates to the Anchovies, have been one of the busiest clubs in Europe this summer and have quietly assembled what looks to be a very promising squad going into next season. Backed by the financial clout of club president and Qatari businessman Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani, who purchased the club just over a year ago for €36 million, Los Boquerones have wrapped up the signatures of eight players in the current transfer window including Valencia's Joaquin Sanchez, Lyon's Jeremy Toulalan and Dutch legend Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The club's most important addition, however, may prove to be that of Spanish international winger Santi Cazorla, who was snapped up last week from Villarreal for €20 million - a club record transfer fee for Malaga. The significance of the signing is found not so much in his costly price tag or the sheer amount of talent the two-footed winger possesses, but rather, in the move to the southern metropolis itself.
Of the eleven players who started for Spain at last year's World Cup final, all but one of them plied their trade for either Real Madrid or Barcelona, a trend that still continues to permeate the national team. Only left-back Joan Capdevila - then of Villarreal, now of Benfica - played for someone else. Now Cazorla, who was part of the starting XI that beat Lithuania 3-1 in Spain's most recent Euro 2012 qualifying match, looks set to become another outlying staple of the reigning champs as its lone representative from Malaga.
At just 26, Cazorla had surely caught the eye of Real and Barca, but ultimately opted to take the road less travelled by Spanish starlets, spurning both the capital and Catalunya for an unprecedented opportunity for transformation at La Rosaleda stadium. He even sacrificed a shot at Champions League glory with Villarreal this season to join a team that finished just three points above the drop zone last year. New team-mates Joaquin and Toulalan, as well as youngster Isco and veteran Martin Demichelis before him have forfeited similar European endeavours in flocking south to take part in the revolution.
But why Malaga? Why now? And why are these players relinquishing their chances at immediate continental success with more renowned clubs? Surely it can't all be about Sheikh Al-Thani's seemingly unlimited mountain of cash, can it?
It is worth noting that Malaga have spent more money (over €55 million) this summer than any other Spanish club; more than any club in England, Germany and Italy, too. Only PSG, whose coup of Palermo's Javier Pastore will cost €43 million, will surpass the grand total doled out by Los Boquerones. But there must be other factors at play here besides money.
Only three teams performed better than Malaga during the second half of last season, and though they barely avoided relegation, the club finished eleventh in the table with a squad that paled in comparison to the one that will take the field for the first time on August 21.
Malaga have strengthened up their backline by adding Dutchman Joris Mathijsen to partner Demichelis in the middle, with new acquisition Nacho Monreal and captain Jesus Gamez at left and right-back, respectively; Argentine Olympian Willy Caballero will start between the sticks. Barring any further signings, the midfield will feature a talented quartet of Joaquin, Toulalan, Cazorla and Julio Baptista to complement a dangerous striking tandem of Salomon Rondon (14 goals last season) and the expert finisher himself, Van Nistelrooy. The bench is none too thin either led by newcomers Isco, Sergio Sanchez and the diminutive Diego Buonanotte.
Perhaps most notable though is the club's administration. The riches of Sheikh Abdullah, the brains of sporting director Antonio Fernandez, and the winning pedigree of head coach Manuel Pellegrini have given the club a strong foundation, and is a big reason why Malaga have such high aspirations heading into this season.
Upon arriving at the club from Bayern Munich in late December of last year, Demichelis described Malaga as the "best project outside Real or Barca" in Spain, and fellow defender and team-mate Kris Stadsgaard echoed that sentiment at a recent press conference.
"This year we have quality players and everyone is hoping for us to play in Europe," the Dane said. "The pre-season has gone well, we travelled a lot, but that way we can concentrate 100%. Last year we had a good team, as we showed in the last ten games, but this year the team is going to be much stronger."
When Sheikh Abdullah first purchased the club a summer ago, he spoke via the new owner Abdullah Mohammed Haj Ghubn about his vision of initially consolidating the club's position in La Liga before endeavouring for a Champions League spot, and people are already talking about Malaga as Spain's third-best team. It is perhaps fitting then that they will open the season against Barcelona.
It goes without saying that matches are not won on paper and that, no matter how much money a team has, trophies are never guaranteed, as any Manchester City fan can attest. But the players who have come to Malaga since the Sheikh's arrival have bought into their president's ambitions and believe they have the parts in place to do something great.
There may be no way of telling how they will fare until a ball is kicked, but two things are for certain: these 'anchovies' are aiming high, and the rest of the league will soon be forced to take note - whether they like it or not.