Málaga steals big two’s thunder

New kids on the block show veterans Real, Barça and Valencia how it’s done

Saving the day: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (center) in Champions League action against Spartak Moscow.
Saving the day: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (center) in Champions League action against Spartak Moscow.Lluís Gené (AFP)

While the build-up to this week’s opening round fixtures may have surrounded the goings-on at the Bernabéu, Camp Nou and the Allianz Arena in Munich, it was what happened at Andalusia’s La Rosadela stadium that really caught the eye on Tuesday.

In their first ever Champions League match, Málaga played the kind of soccer normally associated with their more illustrious counterparts, and left the field looking like seasoned veterans.

The emphatic nature of its 3-0 win over Group C rival Zenit St. Petersburg was all the more impressive given the opposition’s recent record of big spending. Despite losing a large number of players in the off-season, coach Manuel Pellegrini has instilled a belief in his players that was reflected in both his team’s domination of the game, and the result.

The biggest name to have rolled into Málaga this summer, Javier Saviola showed his predatory instinct to double the host’s lead in the opening quarter of an hour, after Isco had opened the scoring with the first of his two goals in the third minute. With his second, a rasping drive that is certainly an early contender for goal of the tournament, Isco rounded off what he called “a complete performance from me and the team,” on a night the south coast will never forget.

On Wednesday, Barcelona survived a huge scare to win 3-2 against Spartak Moscow, just as Real Madrid had done 24 hours earlier. After taking the lead in the 13th minute through Cristian Tello, victory seemed a formality for the home team. However Dani Alves, recalled to the side after being rested at the weekend, brought the Russian side — which was yet to register a shot on goal — back into the game by putting the ball into his own net following an innocuous-looking cross. On the hour mark Romulo put the visitors in front against the run of play. Spartak promptly shut up shop, and Barça was facing the prospect of a first European home defeat in 17 games.

Step forward Lionel Messi. Top scorer in the competition for the last four seasons, the diminutive Argentinean took the game by the scruff of the neck, leveling up proceedings after good play from the impressive Tello, before nodding in the winning goal in the 80th minute. The result leaves Spartak’s Spanish coach Unai Emery without a win against the Catalans in 13 games.

On the same evening, Emery’s former club Valencia could not give Spain a clean sweep, succumbing 1-2 away to last season’s defeated finalist Bayern Munich. The German outfit, which handed a European debut to new signing Javi Martínez, was simply too good for Los Che, taking a two-goal advantage through Bastian Schweinsteiger and Tony Kroos.

A last-10-minute fightback was not enough for Valencia, despite a 90th-minute goal through former Bundesliga player Nelson Valdez. Defender Adil Rami earned himself a red card 60 seconds later by conceding a penalty — which was saved — before the referee blew for full time.

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