Malaga line up at the start of the seasonHuge Middle Eastern investment may have turned Manchester City into the leading contenders for this season's Premier League title and propelled Paris Saint-Germain to the summit of Ligue 1, but the billions of Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani have yet to reap similar rewards for big-spending Málaga.
Boasting the third-largest budget in La Liga this season (€150 million), the Andalucian club were tipped to become credible rivals to Barcelona and Real Madrid but despite briefly topping the table at the beginning of October, they have failed to put any pressure on the top two. A six-game winless run either side of Christmas saw Manuel Pellegrini's side slip to 10th in La Liga and although they went into Monday's trip to neighbours Granada only four points outside the Champions League places, they were only six points above the relegation zone as well.
Close to €60 million was spent on new recruits last summer — most notably, €19 million on attacking midfielder Santi Cazorla and €10 million on holding midfielder Jérémy Toulalan — but the team, perhaps inevitably, is still searching for a consistent winning formula.
The principal source of concern for Pellegrini is likely to be his side's lack of cutting edge in attack. Summer signing Ruud van Nistelrooy and last season's top scorer Salomón Rondón have scored only five league goals between them, but a major contributory factor has been the prolonged absence of Júlio Baptista. The Brazilian was the personification of the late-season revival that saw Málaga surge from the bottom of the standings to finish 11th in 2010-11, but he has been out of action since injuring his foot in the 3-2 win over Getafe on October 1 — a game in which he claimed an injury-time winner with a picture-perfect overhead bicycle kick.
There are also problems in defence. Only four teams in the division let in more goals per game (1.45) than Los Boquerones, and an unwelcome knack for conceding key last-minute goals has raised questions about their mettle. The six-match sequence without victory began with a 3-2 loss at Real Sociedad that came despite the fact they had led 2-1 with two minutes of play remaining, and they went down to a last-minute goal in a 2-1 defeat at struggling Sporting de Gijón last month after van Nistelrooy had levelled the match in the 88th minute. They also conceded a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, while the meek 4-1 loss at home to Barcelona a fortnight ago drew catcalls from the La Rosaleda crowd.
"If there's one thing you can't complain about, it is whistling at the players or the coaching staff," said Pellegrini. "The fans have always supported us. Their expectations are always high and that should be reflected on the pitch, but it takes a while. The technical staff are patient, and so are the directors."
The patience of Al Thani and his advisors is of fundamental concern to Pellegrini, who can fully attest to the problems of dealing with capricious owners, having been sacked by Real Madrid despite guiding them to a superb haul of 96 points in his only season at the club. Al Thani has to date been patient with the Chilean — renewing his contract halfway through last season despite the looming threat of relegation — but Pellegrini will not need reminding that his predecessor in the dug-out, Jesualdo Ferreira, lasted only nine league games before the Qatari showed him the door.
It might be galling for Al Thani to see comparative paupers like Levante and Espanyol sitting above his side in the La Liga standings, but a 2-1 win at home to derby rivals Sevilla at the end of January belatedly stopped the rot and Pellegrini insists that progress is being made. "It might have appeared that the team wasn't a cohesive unit," he admits, "but we will continue to do what we have been doing and try to improve."
Opta's European Team of the Week (click to enlarge)