UEFA Champions League Group C appeared daunting for Málaga CF, winners of an edgy, demanding play-off against Panathinaikos FC – with seven-time European champions AC Milan and an FC Zenit St Petersburg side reinforced by Hulk and Axel Witsel waiting in opposition, plus a robust RSC Anderlecht. As it transpired, however, they topped the group unbeaten, a marvellous achievement.
Story so far
Nothing – not their status as tournament debutants, financial worries, the sale of star players like Santi Cazorla and José Rondón, nor the fact they had to make several free signings right at the end of the transfer window – stopped Málaga being the most inspirational and explosive story of the UEFA Champions League season so far. Following up 3-0 wins against Zenit and Anderlecht with a 1-0 victory over Milan, Málaga took their place in the round of 16 with a 1-1 draw at San Siro on matchday four. They confirmed pole position with a 2-2 draw at Zenit in their next game.
There are two contenders. One is the thrilling 3-0 triumph over Zenit in southern Spain on matchday one when nerves, pride and ambition helped Málaga set a positive tone for the campaign. The celebrations were wild and confidence flourished. The players, however, would say the key moment came before August's play-off against Panathinaikos, when coach Manuel Pellegrini gathered the squad, informed them he was staying despite the club's off-field tribulations, and challenged them to shock everyone domestically and in Europe. His players took up the gauntlet and have regularly attributed their achievements to the Chilean's leadership.
The list is long. Honourable mentions go to Willy in goal, Joaquín, Eliseu and local boy Jesús Gámez. Nonetheless, 20-year-old midfielder Isco, with two goals, three assists and consistent displays of maturity and invention at crucial times across the campaign, is the standout.
Aged 22, Francisco Portillo might never have progressed to the first team had Málaga's need to cut costs not compelled them to draw from their youth system. Not only an academy product but also born in the Andalusian city, Portillo's clever link-up play and technical intelligence have been noted.
The Group C winners kept clean sheets in their first three Group C outings, the 1-0 defeat of Milan on matchday three stretching their European run without conceding to five matches and 487 minutes – a sequence they extended to 560 minutes before being breached in the return.
"We have had a good run of games in the UEFA Champions League and are creating history for the club. We are savouring every minute – the club are going places. We really deserve it because of the way we are playing and because we really try hard – that's why we are where we are."
Striker Roque Santa Cruz encapsulates Málaga's achievement.
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