Joe McQuoid

As the most active La Liga side in this summer’s transfer window and third to only champions Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the spending stakes, Malaga have endured a mixed start to the campaign, with a frustrating opening day 2-1 defeat away at Sevilla followed up by a 4-0 demolition of newly promoted Granada.

Led by experienced Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini and supported by Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani’s billions, the Andalusian side are expected to challenge for a top four finish this season and have ambitions of soon becoming the third Spanish superpower in the world game.

Similarly to other petrodollar backed projects at clubs such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, Malaga signalled their intentions with heavy investment in their playing squad during the summer months by adding a wealth of attacking talent, including Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, the eager to impress Joaquin Sanchez, promising Spain Under-21 forward Isco and, most excitingly of all, Santi Cazorla, with the dynamic winger inking a five-year deal and becoming the club’s record signing following his €21M switch from domestic rivals Villarreal.

Cazorla has made an instant impact in Malaga’s opening two games, scoring three goals – including two trademark free-kicks – and it has quickly become apparent that he could hold the key in the club’s battle to secure Champions League football this season.

Meanwhile, the addition of Van Nistelrooy – on a free transfer from German outfit Hamburg – could prove to be a shrewd piece of business if the striker can rediscover the goalscoring form which made him a household name in Spain during his four-year stint at Real Madrid.

The 35-year-old Dutchman recently went through a frustrating 18-month spell in the Bundesliga but, although an ageing star and not the same energetic all-round attacking force he once was, is still clinical inside the 18-yard-box. Van Nistelrooy will be expected to top Malaga’s scoring charts and at least contribute double figures this season.

Pellegrini switched the formation of his side from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 for the game against Granada after a lacklustre display at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium on the opening day and, albeit against much inferior opposition, was rewarded at both ends of the pitch with his men registering nine shots on target in their second outing compared to just one in the match with Sevilla.

Whilst looking sharp, inventive and accomplished in the final third of the pitch, it will also have been pleasing for the Chilean to have seen his players appear calmer in possession and much more reassured in defence.

Early signs have suggested that the main weakness in this recently assembled side is the centre back pairing of Joris Mathijsen – another summer recruit from Hamburg – and Martin Demichelis, the tall, pony-tailed Argentine signed from Bayern Munich in January.

Although experienced players, both have a clear lack of pace and neither seems to possess a much needed calming influence on the back four, or the ability to play the ball out of defence with accuracy when under pressure. Evidence of these shortcomings was highlighted recently when the pair were given a torrid time by Alvaro Negredo; the Spain forward punished their hesitancy and lack of understanding together with two early strikes to help Sevilla topple Malaga.

Whilst there were signs of improvement against Granada, it came against less talented opposition and at the cost of deploying two holding midfielders, including the talented Jeremy Toulalan, as a protective shield, which may prove to be an effective option against some of the lesser teams, but is likely to be exposed against better sides in the division with quicker frontlines.

If the pair do fail to gel as a partnership as the season progresses then Weligton is the only other realistic option at centre half, but for now it seems that Pellegrini is likely to remain patient and allow the veteran duo time to develop an understanding and mature as a partnership.

Captain Jesus Gamez is a shoe-in at right back and new signing Nacho Monreal is expected to provide quality on the left hand side of defence once he is ready to step into the team, after starting the first two games on the bench with Eliseu the preferred choice.

Although there are uncertainties about how long it could take the side to knit together, the most exciting aspect of this Malaga squad is that it includes a number of players who have the potential to entertain and deliver. Several, until now, have not been provided with the correct platform on which to showcase their talents and take centre stage, or in some cases have suffered serious setbacks in their bid to.

23-year-old Diego Buonanotte started for the club for the first time against Granada, having been signed in January but then loaned straight back to River Plate. The Argentine is hoping to fulfil the great promise he showed during the early stages of his career in Buenos Aires before a fatal car accident which left him in intensive care and took the lives of three of his closest friends.

Buonanotte slotted in between Cazorla and Joaquin as the side’s ‘trequartista’ in their recent victory and will hope to make that role his own and leave his mark on the Primera Division in his first season in Spanish football.

After scoring twice in the same game, Joaquin looks like a player reborn in his new surroundings having never fully lived up to his potential at Valencia following a big money move from Real Betis early in his career. Young strikers Salomon Rondon and Isco, both of whom possess exciting attacking qualities, are also reason for the Malaga faithful to become excited, and the pair will be hoping for the chance to prove their worth whilst taking some of the goalscoring burden off the shoulders of the more experienced Van Nistelrooy and Julio Baptista in attack this season.

Now a full 15 months on from the Middle Eastern takeover, a new dawn has indeed begun for Los Boquerones. The foundations are in place for the next step in the club’s rapid progression and it is time for patience from Al Thani to see if Pellegrini’s exciting new blend of youth and experience can deliver at the first time of asking.

Although Barcelona and Real Madrid are unlikely to be challenged as the top two in La Liga in the near future, the Chilean has added enough quality to his squad to suggest that the refreshing emergence of Malaga will unsettle the next grouping in the Spanish hierarchy – including the likes of Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal – sooner rather than later.