Málaga. AC Milan. Two sides with very different histories, separated in continental competition by seven European Cup triumphs and more than 230 Champions League matches. Back in the 2006-07 season, Málaga was in Segunda División, where it spent half of the 1980s and the whole of the 1990s. At the same time, Milan was busy winning the Champions League, led by Kaká, who scored 10 goals and was named the tournament's best player.
Those were very different days at the San Siro; so different that Málaga is far from the underdog ahead of Tuesday night's return European encounter (Canal + Liga Campeones, 8.45pm). The Anchovies sit top of Group C, with nine points from three games, seven goals scored and none conceded. It is a position of considerable strength from which to approach a match at the Italian coliseum.
The Serie A team has played just one home match in the group stage thus far, gifting Anderlecht its sole point of the tournament to date in a goalless tie. Málaga has played some dazzling attacking soccer under Manuel Pellegrini this season and is under no obligation to sit back and allow Milan to settle on the ball. In Joaquín Sánchez, Isco and the rejuvenated Javier Saviola, the visitor has plenty of attacking verve.
A win will qualify Málaga for the knock-out stages, should Zenit fail to beat Anderlecht in Brussels. Even a loss won't derail Málaga's adventure critically; Pellegrini's team will still be two points clear of Milan, with both facing Zenit and Anderlecht in the last two games. The greatest threat to the visitor on Tuesday evening will be Serie A top scorer Stephan El Shaarawy, who has hit form at just the right time to drag the struggling rossoneri up the league table from its precarious position a few weeks ago.
Real Madrid welcomes Borussia Dortmund to the Bernabéu on the same evening (TVE1, 8.45pm) but is not in the controlling group position to which it has become accustomed in recent years. The double Bundesliga champion should be even further ahead of the Spanish club but for the heroics of Manchester City striker Joe Hart and a 90th-minute Mario Balotelli penalty that rescued a point for the host at the Etihad Stadium in early October.
Jürgen Klopp's team completely outplayed Jose Mourinho's men during the second half at the Westfalenstadion in a 2-1 win two weeks ago and the nine-times winner of the competition has its work cut out to prevent the Germans from pulling clear in Group D. Dortmund is a powerful, lightning-quick counter-attacking side that Mourinho admitted was difficult to play against as its style is so similar to that of Real, leaving little room to exploit.
Should Dortmund pick up three points in the Bernabéu, Real would need to get something out of City — so far the only side to have held the Germans. If the Premier League club avenges its 3-1 loss to Ajax in the return game in Manchester, it would be two points behind Real, but Mourinho's team would still hold the advantage as it plays Ajax in the final round of matches while City must travel to the seething Westfalenstadion, one of Europe's most raucous grounds.