While Real Madrid was busily going about the familiar task of deconstructing Ajax in the Champions League group stages for the fifth time in two-and-a-bit seasons in Amsterdam, a little way across the low countries Málaga was chalking up its second win of an inaugural European campaign.
It is par for the course that Cristiano Ronaldo dominates front pages the continent over after a second hat-trick in four days in a 4-1 stroll, but as Europe proved against the USA in the Ryder Cup, every underdog has its day. Málaga’s 3-0 win over Anderlecht was its second of the tournament and it is yet to concede a goal in easing into the top spot in Group C ahead of AC Milan.
Of all Spain’s teams, it would be fair to say Real has the toughest group, but it also has the limitless resources to compete at a level equal to or above the likes of Manchester City, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund. Málaga, despite the fanfare surrounding its takeover by Qatari high-rollers, has molded a unit from the remnants of the club’s one-off spending spree, its youth ranks and some old warhorses.
Even the outlay made at the start of last season was not, in retrospect, that extravagant: Santi Cazorla became the club’s record signing when he joined from Villarreal for 23 million euros, but most of that was recouped when he was sold on to Arsenal. Eliseu, a free transfer from CF Belenenses Lissabon in 2007, scored twice in the Constant Vanden Stock, with Joaquín, a 4.2-million bargain from Valencia, adding one from the spot. Isco, his former teammate at Mestalla who arrived in the same transfer window for a mere six million, has flourished this season after a promising debut year and the Spain under-21 international was the chief tormentor of both Betis and Zenit, games which reaped seven goals for none conceded.
“Right now we can give anyone, including Milan, a run for their money,” said Joaquín after the match. The Italian giants are next up at La Rosaleda. A few weeks ago the match might have been a little overwhelming for Málaga, but Manuel Pellegrini’s team has proved that it is far from a making-up-the-numbers Champions League team.
Real and Málaga’s successes on Wednesday completed a clean sweep of victories for Spanish participants in this year’s competition after Barcelona and Valencia both secured three points each a day earlier. Leo Messi again turned provider against Benfica, laying on both assists for Cesc Fàbregas and Alexis Sánchez to score in a 2-0 win. Against Sevilla a few days beforehand, Messi also set up two goals in a 3-2 win. At Mestalla, Jonas Gonçalves struck twice to seal a 2-0 win for Valencia over Lille, the side’s first win of this European campaign.