Champions League Preview: Málaga’s one advantage over Borussia Dortmund

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Manuel Pellegrini has been here before: Seven years ago, when the current Málaga boss was leading another tournament debutant to a surprise Champions League run. Back in 2006 the debutant was Villarreal, with the Yellow Submarine tasked with derailing a characteristically talented Internazionale in the quarterfinal round. Turning around a 2-1 first leg loss at the San Siro, Villarreal used Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s looping 56th minute free kick and a clean sheet upset the Nerazzurri, launching the upstart Valencians into an improbable Champions League semifinal.

Squint until you can’t see the details, and Pellegrini’s current team looks awfully similar. This is Málaga’s club first appearance in Champions League, and like that Villarreal team, a star playmaker is at the center of its success: Juan Roman Riquelme back then; 20-year-old Isco now. With the likes of Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal and Solamon Rondón having departed over the last year, Málaga’s resembles the solid but superstar-light club team that eventually lost to Arsenal. And just as this Málaga team has Isco heading the underrated contributions of Willy Caballero, Jeremy Toulálán, and Weligton, Villarreal had only Riquelme and Diego Forlán to claim as star attractions.

But whether he’s had them or not, Pellegrini’s never needed those star attractions to have success. At Villarreal, Real Madrid, Málaga or his various stops in South America before jumping to Europe, Pellegrini’s teams have always been built on the same principles. Strong in possession but conservative with their chances, the Chilean’s teams have typically waited for opportunities present themselves. When they do, his sides act directly and with confidence. In that way, most of Pellegrini’s tactics are worked out on the training ground, his methods eschewing constant tweaks and adjustments in favor of a consistency that’s regularly produced competitive sides.

(MORE, from Tuesday: PSG-Barça inconclusive | Bayern illustrates the gap to Juventus.)

It’s why Pellegrini has won titles in three different leagues with four different clubs. It’s why his teams have always competed near the top of La Liga, even when his Villarreal and Málaga teams have been outgunned by their competition. It’s why former Chile international produced a then-club record 96-point season during his only campaign with Real Madrid.

It’s also why people may be taking his current team for granted in their quarterfinal with Borussia Dortmund, a tie that kicks of Wednesday in Spain. And given the three-year buildup that’s gone into this Dortmund team, it’s understandable. BVB has one of the most talented teams in Europe, and after two straight titles in Germany, there is a sense that the team’s Champions League time is now. Unless their opponent has the name value of Real, Barcelona, or Bayern, Dortmund is going to be favored to go through.

But that’s where Pellegrini’s experience matters, the Málaga coach having previous defied the odds. In 2006, his Yellow Submarine went up against a team with Adriano, Luis Figo, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Zanetti, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, and Julio Cruz. And he managed to move past them.

source: Getty ImagesSo Dortmund have Robert Lewandowski (right), who has scored 12 goals in his last 12 appearances. They have Mario Gotze and Marco Reus behind him, Ilkay Gundogan in midfield, with Neven Subotic and Lukasz Piszczek in defense. At almost every position, they have players who would best their Málaga counterparts.

But none of that guarantees Dortmund will go through. Between two teams with little Champions League experience in their squads, Málaga has one thing that BVB lacks: Someone who has been here before.

(MORE, Highlights: PSG-Barcelona | Bayern-Juventus.)

Notes

  • Borussia Dortmund will be without Mats Hummels, the central defender having yet to recover from his ankle injury. Felipe Santana will start along side Subotic.
  • Jakub Blaszczykowski could already return, the winger having been held out of Saturday’s game at Stuttgart after picking up an injury while with Poland.
  • Marcel Schmelzer and Sebastian Kehl should also be available despite knocks. Each with in the team on Saturday.
  • After Juventus lost on Tuesday, Dortmund are the only team without a loss in the year’s Champions League. Málaga have only lost once: Last round at Porto.
  • On Saturday, Pellegrini started Julio Baptista alone up top at Rayo Vallecano, hinting Roque Santa Cruz could get the call on Wednesday.
  • With only 28 goals allowed, Málaga have the second-best defensive record in Spain. In five matches at home in this year’s Champions League, Pellegrini’s side has kept four clean sheets.

(MORE: Gala looks for breakthrough at Real Madrid.)

Possible lineups

Málaga (4-4-2): Willy Caballero; Antunes, Weligton, Martín Demichelis, Jesús Gamez; Isco, Iturra, Jeremey Toulálán; Javier Saviola, Roque Santa Cruz.

Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weidenfeller; Marcel Schmelzer, Felipe Santan, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Piszczek; Ilkay Gudongan, Sebastian Kehl; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakub Blaszczykowski; Robert Lewandowski.

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.