Football is often about fine margins. Less than two months ago, Malaga seemed unable to buy a goal and Coach Javi Gracia feared the worst. Now, following a great run of results and some determined performances, a Europa League place looks achievable for the Andalucians.
Malaga endured a terrible beginning to the 2015-16 season but appear to have put their woes behind them. Stringing together a run of seven games unbeaten, and with a miserly defence, Gracia’s men sit a comfortable 10th in La Liga following their 1-1 draw at Las Palmas last weekend.
Failing to hit the back of the net in the first six games of the campaign, it seemed as if the harder they worked, the longer their empty run would continue. Scoreless and winless, and with Gracia seemingly about to be fired at any moment, Malaga’s misery was compounded as they were dumped out of the Copa del Rey by La Segunda outfit Mirandes.
Home wins over Real Sociedad and Deportivo La Coruna punctuated a further trail of defeats to nil as the club with a history of ups and downs was rooted to the bottom of La Liga. Yet there were signs of resilience amid the gloom with Barcelona and Real Madrid both managing only 1-0 wins against an often stubborn Malaga rearguard.
The solid defensive pairing of Raul Albentosa and the veteran Weligton have stood firm, even during the barren opening weeks of the campaign and, although only Real Betis have hit fewer than the 14 goals Malaga have now registered, only Atletico Madrid have let in fewer than the 15 conceded by Los Boquerones.
Malaga last tasted defeat at Espanyol on November 21. Draws against Granada and Athletic Bilbao then triggered four straight wins – 2-1 at Rayo Vallecano, an unexpected 1-0 triumph over Atletico at La Rosaleda, another 1-0 at Levante and 2-0 against Celta Vigo – before Sunday’s draw at Gran Canaria.
That win at Vallecas on December 13 proved to be something of a watershed for Gracia’s side. Trailing at half-time, Malaga’s equaliser from Charles was their first goal away from La Rosaleda and Duje Cop’s 87th-minute winner, his first of the season, gave them their maiden away victory.
Malaga extended their unbeaten run to seven games with the draw at Las Palmas. Four wins and three draws in that sequence saw the Costa del Sol side take 15 of the 21 points available to make an impressive climb up the table. The run also equalled the club’s second-best streak in La Liga and earned Gracia the Primera Coach of the Month award for December.
Los Blanquiazules previously registered a chain of five wins and two draws under Manuel Pellegrini in 2010-11, having gone nine games unbeaten in 2009-10 when Juan Ramon Muniz was in charge, although that run comprised just two wins and seven draws.
Brazilian striker Charles, signed from Celta Vigo in the summer, has been prolific in the context of his team’s struggles, netting eight of Malaga’s paltry 14 goals in his 17 appearances, while Roque Santa Cruz finally opened his second La Liga account for Malaga by grabbing the equaliser against Las Palmas.
The return of the pugnacious Ignacio Camacho from injury has also been instrumental in Malaga’s revival, lending some steel to the midfield battles, while the addition of Chory Castro, signed from Real Sociedad to become the first January arrival at La Liga, should help to build a more robust central formation with greater ball-winning ability.
If Malaga can start being more ruthless at home and making La Rosaleda a place feared by opponents, their good form can continue and that European berth can become a reality. The next two difficult fixtures – at Sevilla this coming Saturday and home against Barcelona a week later – will test the mettle of the new Malaga and will be telling.