Malaga grew into their Champions League last-16 second leg with Porto as half-time approached, during a frenetic 45 minutes that saw more yellow cards than shots on goal. It seemed that Malaga might experience another frustrating evening, until wonderkid Isco broke the deadlock with a true moment of quality. The Spaniard, now at Real Madrid, collected the ball from 25 yards out, turned, took a touch and sent a curling strike over the flailing arm of Porto goalkeeper Helton.
Add to this a second-half Roque Santa Cruz header and some last-ditch defending at the death, and Malaga had done it. The Malaguista faithful were in raptures as chants of ‘sí se puede’ (‘yes you can’) rang out around La Rosaleda. After the match, the scale of their achievement hit home for Isco. “An achievement like this seemed impossible only a short time ago. It’s a dream for everyone here,” he told reporters. In their maiden Champions League season, Malaga had reached the quarter-finals.
On a chilly Tuesday night in April, Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park was the setting for the biggest match in Malaga’s turbulent history. After Dortmund dominated the first leg, which somehow ended 0-0, the week before, the travelling Malaga fans would’ve been forgiven for feeling less than optimistic about their chances in Germany. Yet they had nothing to lose. They had exceeded all expectations by emerging from a tricky group in their debut European campaign. They had also successfully negotiated a last-16 tie with the Portuguese champions. And they had tamed one of Europe’s most potent attacks, preventing Dortmund from scoring any precious away goals in the first leg. The least Malaga could do for their long-suffering fans was to take the game to BVB in their own backyard and give it a right good go. And give it a go they did.
The first leg was a stark reminder of the quality of opposition Malaga now faced. Coach Manuel Pellegrini knew he had to try and limit Dortmund in the return fixture, while ensuring Malaga still created chances to snatch an away goal. He replaced striker Javier Saviola – who had been largely ineffective in the first leg – with pacey winger Duda. Julio Baptista also featured up top,as his physical prowess and aerial ability would enable him to knock down balls to the supporting attacking trio of Isco, Duda and Joaquín Sanchez. Malaga also employed a high-pressing game, giving Dortmund little time on the ball and thus reducing their threat somewhat. As the clock struck 90 minutes, it looked like Pellegrini’s tinkering had worked.
Malaga looked unmoved by the intimidating atmosphere at Signal Iduna Park and were the better side in the first half, even if it was lacking in quality. In fact, it was they who drew first blood. Joaquin’s brilliant turn fooled Marcel Schmelzer, before the Spaniard drilled a left-footed strike past the grasping fingertips of Roman Weidenfeller. Although Robert Lewandowski equalised, the Pole expertly rounding an on-rushing Willy Caballero, Los Boquerones wasted two great opportunities either side of half-time. Firstly, Joaquin found himself completely unmarked from a free kick, but his tame header was comfortably saved. He then spurned another chance, two minutes into the second half, when his close-range header was brilliantly saved by Weidenfeller’s instinctive left arm.
Dortmund seemed to have been given a rocket for the second half and subsequently piled on the pressure. If it wasn’t for two superb Caballero saves, which denied Marco Reus and then Mario Gotze, Jurgen Klopp’s side would’ve been out of sight. It seemed as though Malaga had missed their chance to snatch the game.
This changed in an instant, however, as substitute Eliseu’s two-yard tap-in sent the travelling blue-and-white army into delirium. Cue wild celebrations in the stands, the players celebrating right in front of their travelling fans and the substitutes joining in too. Admittedly there was a strong hint of offside about the goal, Eliseu being a good yard offside when Baptista squared the ball to him, but Malaga didn’t care. The fans didn’t care. The neutrals in their armchairs didn’t care. The plucky underdogs from southern Spain, in their first-ever Champions League campaign, seemed to be heading to the semi-finals. The jubilant celebrations were goosebump-inducing; the very fabric of what football dreams are made of. Or at least that’s what Malaga thought.
The fourth official indicated four minutes of injury time. Inside the first of those, Marco Reus stroked home the equaliser after the ball fell fortuitously after a scramble in the box. 2-2 on aggregate, but Malaga were still going through thanks to the away-goals rule. The mood amongst the visiting support was still one of excitement and anticipation. But how emotions can change so quickly in football…
With Malaga pinned inside their own penalty area, trying not submit to Dortmund’s dominance, no-one could stop defender Felipe Santana, an unlikely match-winner if there ever was one, from stabbing home the winner on the goal line. Despite desperate, yet legitimate, appeals for offside from Malaga’s distraught players, the goal stood. The Malaga fairy tale was over.
Since that night in western Germany almost five years ago, Malaga have suffered a rapid but somewhat inevitable decline. Banned from participating in the following season’s Europa League for breach of Financial Fair Play, Malaga have since lurched from crisis to crisis. Instability in the leadership, the loss of key players and funds drying up have seen the Malaguistas regress from European contenders to relegation fodder in a shockingly-short space of time.
The Andalusians face an uncertain future, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. The good times may have been short-lived, but for generations, the same story will be told in the stands of La Rosaleda; the story of how a team set out on a voyage from the port of Malaga – and almost came home with the treasure.