Article by Jack Francis Follow him on Twitter here http://twitter.com/#!/JackFrancis
For most non native fans of La Liga, whether we like it or not the limelight is firmly focused on the ‘big two’ in Spain with Real Madrid and Barcelona commanding most of the attention of the premium television cameras. Much of their success in terms of popularity overseas boils down to not only success on the pitch, but a plethora of household names and superstars who make up the team. During the transfer period, they receive high media attention as everyone wonders who the next ‘galactico’ will be for Real Madrid, or whether Barcelona finally succeed with their courting of Cesc Fabregas or find another highly skilled player such as Alexis Sanchez to fit in their system.
But it’s neither Madrid nor Barça who are making the most headlines during the off season, but a team from Andalucía who seem trying to make an impact on La Liga, similar to another team controlled by the oil-rich power of the Middle East, Manchester City. Much like City, Malaga have been attempting to lure big names to La Rosaleda funded by owner Sheikh Al Thani.
Last season after giving the manager’s chair to former Villareal and Real Madrid chief Manuel Pellegrini they secured two high profile players last season in former Real Madrid, Arsenal and Roma star Julio Baptista, and former Bayern man Martin DeMichelis who both added experience and quality to the ambitious side. The new arrivals made a significant impact as the relegation candidates ending up finishing the 2011 campaign in mid table with a respectable 11th position.
For the upcoming season they’ve been even more ambitious securing the signatures of more high profile players: Most notably Ruud Van Nistlerooy, a prolific striker who has scored 245 goals during his career and has won 3 league titles with PSV, Machester United and Real Madrid. Other signings so far under the new ownership of Sheikh Al Thani include former Real Betis and Valencia winger Joaquin, Lyon defensive midfielder Jeremy Toulalan and Hamburg defender Joris Mathijsen. Having welcomed aboard Fernando Hierro as a general manager, they are also rumoured to have had an offer accepted for Marseille lynchpin Lucho Gonzalez and well as being interested with a vast array of players ranging from Chelsea striker Didier Drogba as well as the well sought after and possibly Manchester United bound Wesley Sneijder, all players which have commanded big fees and wages and of course who are household names. There is no questioning Malaga’s intent coming into the new season albeit at such an early stage in their attempted ascent to the top bids for Drogba or Sneijder seem out of reach for the Andalucian club.
But will all this spending really give Malaga the firepower to challenge the mighty Real Madrid and Barcelona? Malaga seem to be basing their footballing philosophy on Manchester City, who after a stuttering start, have steadily imposed themselves on the Premier League and while not considered favourites for the competition, they have managed an FA Cup victory and Champion’s League qualification, with Malaga sure to have the same ambitions as they look to build on their only European success in 2002 with victory in the Intertoto Cup.
Whether or not Malaga can imitate some of this success remains to be seen. Real Madrid and Barcelona are on another planet in terms of reputation and media expectation with the La Liga title yo-yoing from the Capital and Catalonia for the majority of its history, as well as their ability to attract the top stars with their rich footballing history both domestically and in Europe.
However Malaga are definitely making a statement of intent with the calibre of players there are acquiring. The likes of Van Nistelrooy and Toulalan are no strangers to winning league titles and trophies and Champion’s League experience seems to be the buzzword with the way Malaga are going about business. The main question hovering other these new players is whether or not the majority of them are past their sell by date. No one could argue that if these signings were done 5 years ago they would be an incredible bit of business. Joaquin was a tricky, pacy winger with the world at his feet when he was still at Real Betis and being courted by the likes of Manchester Utd before falling out of form and rapidly being a distant memory for football fans. At 29 years old there is still time for him to prove himself, but time will tell if he still has the extra yard of pace to beat his opposite number on the wing. Toulalan, while being ever-present for Lyon as he helped them dominate the French league, faces a problem of stepping up to perform in arguably the most talented league in the world. His gritty style of play is not necessarily going to work in La Liga with players likely to buy cheap fouls off of his strong challenges. Another player who is pushing 30, will he adapt to the pace of the game which is much quicker than the French model.
Perhaps this is too harsh a critique to be levelling at players who have not actually made an appearance for the club yet. Many would have considered Julio Baptista past his best when he made his move to the south of Spain, but he immediately became a key player for Los Boquerones, hitting 9 goals for them in only 11 outings, with some goals which clearly showcased his talents, such as his wonder strike against Santander which had been nominated for goal of the season. And while new signing Ruud Van Nistelrooy is a grand old 35 years of age, he is a proven goalscorer and has experience in Spain with 46 goals for Real Madrid and with only a one year contract being offered, this does not represent a big risk signing for Malaga as he can be let go if things don’t work out, regardless Think Football back the striker to star as hes never relied on pace and will never lose his clinical touch in front of goal netting 17 in 44 last term for Hamburg.
We must remember that the sudden injection of money from rich owners doesn’t guarantee immediate success. Both Chelsea and Manchester City were not successful straight after their takeovers. Players must take time to gel together and produce a style of football which has an identity rather than coming across as just a group of individuals. Malaga has certainly made a good start, and it is an intriguing and welcome change of situation for the neutral fan, who has witnessed a Real Madrid and Barcelona dominance.
One thing is for sure the injection of money into Malaga will certainly make things more interesting in La Liga as the ‘big two’ have dominated financially for far too long with disproportionate access to TV revenue which has helped them cement their places as Spanish footballers giants. With the other ‘big’ sides in Spain such as Atletico Madrid, Sevilla or Valencia struggling financially to compete often selling their best players to the ‘big two’ such as Dani Alves and Villa moving to Barca from Sevilla and Valencia over the years. This will not be a problem for Malaga who have the financial muscle to hang on to their stars.
Calls to Malaga to challenge for the title are perhaps optimistic at best, but with their new experienced backroom staff as well as playing staff, they are definitely going in the right direction, making Malaga the team to watch this season.
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