At the start of the 2010-2011 season, few European soccer fans could name a single player of Malaga CF, or even knew that the club existed. Yet, after an impressive 11th place finish in La Liga this past season and some big signings in this transfer window, Malaga CF are slowly making their presence known to not only their competition in La Liga, but the rest of the world too.
Prior to last season, Malaga CF were little more than an average club with average ambitions; the club would've been satisfied just to survive in La Liga and avoid relegation. Although tied historically (but not legally) to CD Malaga, the Andalusian team had achieved little success of note over the 18 years since CD Malaga disbanded, with its biggest achievement being its UEFA Intertoto Cup win 2002 and its subsequent run to the quarterfinals in the UEFA Cup in 2003.
Thus, even when Qatari investor Abdullah ben Nasser Al Thani bought the club from ex-Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz at the start of the season, not many people took notice.
And indeed, for a while there was nothing to take notice of. Malaga made no major signings over the summer, signing two relatively unknown strikers in Sebastian Fernandez and Salomon Rondon, and their coach, Jesualdo Ferreira, was sacked only nine games into the La Liga season.
Halfway through the season, Malaga sat in the relegation zone, and looked like a team heading nowhere fast. Sheikh Abdullah's investment looked to be heading for failure.
And that's when Sheikh Abdullah decided to really step in and change things around at the club.
His first move was to hire Manuel Pellegrini, one of the best coaches available on the market at the time. He followed that up by strengthening the team with big name signings in the form of Demichelis from Bayern Munich, Maresca as a free agent (last played with Olympiacos), and Julio Baptista from Roma, as well as a number of squad player signings as he completely revamped the Malaga squad.
With this newly revamped squad, Malaga won five games in a row for the first time in their history, and climbed out of the relegation zone and into 11th place, only three points behind eighth place Espanyol.
This summer, though, is where Malaga have really surprised everyone and truly highlighted their ambition for the coming season. Promising big wages and an enticing project in the world's second best (some say the best) league, Malaga have signed up Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Toulalan, Mathijsen, Buonanotte and Nacho Monreal, and reportedly are chasing Didier Drogba as well.
As of today, Malaga's starting 11 in a 4-4-2 would look like this:
Monreal - Mathijsen - Demichelis - Gamez
Duda - Toulalan - Baptista - Eliseu
Van Nistelrooy - Rondon
On paper, this is one of the best starting 11s you will find in La Liga outside of the top seven.
The defense features two of the best full backs in Spanish football in Spanish international Nacho Monreal and captain Jesus Gamez, and in the middle Malaga have two center backs in Demichelis and Mathijsen who have played at the highest levels of football in their careers, and should each still have two or three years left in them before their performance shows signs of declining from its current level.
In midfield, Malaga are flanked by Portuguese wingers Duda and Eliseu, who together racked up eight goals and 17 assists last season. Toulalan possibly represents the biggest and best acquisition of Malaga thus far, being a regular French international and at the age of 27 in the prime of his career.
The question of who will partner him is a big one as there are about five different candidates for the job (Apono, Camacho, Torres, Baptista, and Buonanotte when he returns from loan), but with nine goals in only 11 appearances, Baptista may just win out.
Up front is where Malaga are most dangerous. In Van Nistelrooy, soon to be 35 years old, Malaga have signed a striker who is only a shadow of his former self, but can still be a solid goal poacher and should serve as an excellent mentor for Rondon.
In Rondon's feet are where most of Malaga's hopes lie. After scoring 16 goals in 31 appearances in his first season in La Liga, the sky is the limit for the Venezuelan forward, and Malaga will be hoping for more of the same going into next season.
The questions that needs to be answered though are these: How far can Malaga go? Can they crack the top seven, or even challenge Real and Barcelona like some pundits expect they will? And of course, are they the Manchester City of La Liga?
Honestly, with the revamped squad Sheikh Abdullah has helped Pellegrini craft at Malaga, the ceiling for success is very high. As the saying goes, though, "You have to learn how to walk before you can run," and Malaga will need to learn how to win consistently throughout a season, and allow their squad time to gel and improve their chemistry, before they start challenging for the Champions League.
As such, I can see them finishing in seventh or eighth place next season, either grabbing the last Europa League spot or just missing out. The following season, with a replacement for Van Nistelrooy, and maybe a big long-term center back signing, I can see them challenging for the last Champions League spot.
This prediction is assuming everything goes right for Malaga; that Sheikh Abdullah sticks with his club, that Pellegrini is kept on as manager and that the squad gels.
How high will Malaga finish in La Liga Next Season?
Lastly, on the topic of Malaga being the Manchester City of La Liga, I think we have yet to see that at all. Unlike Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, Sheikh Abdullah has been careful and smart with the spending of his money.
His biggest signing, Toulalan, cost him only 10 million euros, which is nothing compared to what Manchester City regularly splash in the transfer market. He has signed Monreal for 5.3 million euros, Mathijsen for 2.2 million euros, and Van Nistelrooy on a free transfer and spent similarly very little to sign Baptista and Demichelis (around 2.5 million euros each).
If he signs Drogba from Chelsea (a transfer which I cannot see happening), then we might witness a change in philosophy, but at the moment Sheikh Abdullah has been very pragmatic and intelligent with his purchases.
Nevertheless, its great to see another club become relevant in La Liga and increase the competitiveness in the league that has been sorely lacking for years now. Malaga CF have a very bright future ahead of them, and I personally am excited to see just how high they can go.
Let me know what you think! What do you think of Malaga's work thus far with Sheikh Abdullah as owner? Do you think they'll keep going up, or simply level off as a mid-table team in La Liga? I look forward to reading your comments.