La Rosaleda, Malaga – There was once a feeling of togetherness in Malaga. The fans connected with the players, they were both participants; they each played their part. “Connecting with the supporters is where true satisfaction comes from,” said Javi Gracia – the current Watford manager – when he was in charge of Malaga. That was certainly the case when the Navarran was manager as it was also under Manuel Pellegrini. On Saturday, when Atletico Madrid came to visit, the stadium was full and yet it was empty. A club that has been through so much in the past decade now faces the drop to Segunda.
It is less than five years since Malaga found themselves seconds away from the Champions League semi-final but it feels like a world away now: this team is not that team. When Abdullah bin-Nasser al-Thani bought Malaga in 2010 he promised to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona and he spent €160m building a team who could do that; his team finished fourth and headed into the Champions League where they would have reached the semi-final only for two stoppage-time Borussia Dortmund goals to deny them.
Since those heady days in 2013 – when it appeared that Malaga’s challenge was a real one – Al-Thani has not invested any money in the club and that team of big-name players was dismantled. Like the seasons before the take-over – when they featured in Segunda, Segunda B, and even Tercera – Malaga had to rely on developing their own. In came Javi Gracia with the task of developing younger players in a way that Pellegrini and Bernd Schuster had not. Gracia did that and more. He believed in them. The prospect of European competition again in 2014 looked a possibility but eventually finishing ninth was – all things considered – still a major success.
The issue was that pretty much everything Gracia did was then undone. “The magic word is cantera [the youth system],” El Pais insisted. “Samu, Darder, Samu Castillejo, Juanmi …” were amongst the eight to leave whilst seven new players arrived with only one costing any money. But Gracia remained unfazed, he knew the reality, “my vision has to be young players that we can develop to build a better team.” Yes, players will come and go but the bigger picture is what counts. For the seasons that followed it was the same – economics determined that Gracia was given a new team every season but still consecutive top-ten finishes were achieved. Each season would start slowly but soon enough performances – and consequently – results would improve as the players found their feet and their relationships developed.
Credit began to arrive at the feet of Gracia – the depth of his analysis and his endless questioning impressed. He saw weaknesses in the bigger sides that others did not. In one season, they used two different formations in two different games against Barcelona – they won the one at Camp Nou but lost the one at home yet in both matches they were the better side, and even Luis Enrique conceded that. But this was far from a one-off. They drew with Real Madrid and Atletico – the satisfaction amongst the supporters was not just at the scores but at the way they had played; aware of how much of an achievement this was; the fans identified with them. When Gracia’s side were at their best, they were just as good as the all-star sides that had gone before them.
But then Gracia left at the end of the 2015/16 season – the glue that had held this together was now gone – fed up with the constant upheaval of players he needed a change. The owner’s interest had long dwindled and now they had to find a manager who could carry on the achievements of Gracia. Juande Ramos returned for a second spell at the club but lasted only a matter of months – Marcelo Romero and then Michel followed. Despite the managerial merry-go-round, Malaga still managed a mid-table finish but the signs were telling. The performances lacked conviction and the ambition of the club – that Gracia had kept alive – was now dimming. The owners wanted out. The fans also wanted them gone. But nothing happened.
The decisions made by the owners concerning the managerial position and their statements to the media were disruptive as opposed to helpful. This season things appear even worse. Michel lasted until early January but now Jose Gonzalez has the tough task of keeping Malaga in Primera. Currently bottom and with only 13 points to their name – and only three wins – it looks increasingly likely that the Andalucians will be relegated come May. The fans wish that the money had stayed or never arrived. For that short period, the world was Malaga’s oyster. Manchester City, PSG, and Malaga … it could have been. But rather than sustained development, the lack of investment and attention has led to a downfall that few predicted. Despite Javi Gracia’s success, Malaga have drifted way off track.
On Saturday – in typical Malaga style – it was a slow start. Atletico Madrid scored in the opening minute – Antoine Griezmann was alert enough to collect the ball that rebound off Keko and finished well to score the only goal of the match. Los rojiblancos were the better side throughout but lacked the cutting edge in the final third to double their lead. In times gone by, Malaga may have shown character and resilience to fight back but not this Malaga. A few shots tested Jan Oblak but they were nothing serious. Malaga were, yet again this season, on the losing side and for the sixteenth match they had also failed to score. The atmosphere that graced la Rosaleda back when Malaga were in the Champions League has long gone – the fans still turn up but with little hope of any excitement. There is emptiness around the club, positivity is nowhere to be seen, the ambition of a decade ago is now gone.
Los Otros Puntos
- It was a good start by Real Madrid – Cristiano Ronaldo made the most an inadvertent touch from Aritz Elustondo to deliver a chipped cross that Lucas Vazquez headed in inside the opening minute. Considering Real Sociedad have been involved in two 4-2s and a 5-0 in there last four matches, this result could have been anything. The hosts were in charge from the off but it took until the 27th minute for them to add to their lead when Marcelo squared the ball to the unmarked Ronaldo to slot home just inside the area, and seven minutes later Toni Kroos curled a delightful third. Ronaldo added his second, and 10th league goal of the season, soon after when he powered a header over the line from Luka Modric’s perfectly-weighted corner as Real went into the break four goals up. The second-half was more even la Real managed to pull one back when Bautista picked up Mikel Oyarzabal’s pass and tucked a composed effort past Keylor Navas, but Ronaldo grabbed his 43rd Real hatrick when he tapped home after Geronimo Rulli had spilled Gareth Bale’s effort. Asier Illarramendi snatched another for Real Sociedad but the three points were safe. Zinedine Zidane after the match highlighted his sides’ ‘good preparation and motivation’ ahead of the vital midweek European clash against PSG.
- For the first time this season Barcelona failed to score in a La Liga match and it came against a Getafe side that have kept seven clean sheets this season. The visitors were resolute in defence and played well on the break without really testing Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Luis Suarez had a goal correctly ruled offside, Philippe Coutinho had a long-range effort tipped wide by Vicente Guaita, and Yerry Mina saw his header tipped over the bar. A frustrating afternoon for la Blaugrana shouldn’t take away from the achievement of Jose Bordalas’ Getafe who are now in tenth position. The draw means that there are only seven points between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in second – maybe, just maybe, there might be a hint of league after all.
- Valencia ended a run of six defeats by beating Levante in el Derbi de Valencia. Santi Mina headed in the opener for Los Che but the lead lasted less than two minutes as Sergio Postigo swiftly replied by converting from a corner at the other end. Luciano Vietto restored the hosts’ lead just after the hour-mark when Levante goalkeeper Oier failed to smother the ball, and Valencia wrapped up the points and the win through a late Dani Parejo penalty.
- Gerard Moreno moved higher up the La Liga goalscoring charts as his tenth of the season rescued a late point for Espanyol away against Celta Vigo.
- Basque Berets were thrown on as were caps and even a red top hat, which Adil Ramis picked up and placed on his head … well at the end of the day, he had stolen the spotlight for Eibar against Leganes.
Athletic Bilbao 0–0 Las Palmas
Villarreal 1–2 Alaves
Malaga 0–1 Atletico Madrid
Leganes 0–1 Eibar
Real Madrid 5–2 Real Sociedad
Sevilla 1–0 Girona
Barcelona 0–0 Getafe
Celta Vigo 2–2 Espanyol
Valencia 3–1 Levante
Deportivo – Real Betis to be played on Monday
El Jugador de la Semana: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
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