Málaga see off Porto, advance to first Champions League quarterfinals

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A season that began in disarray is turning into the most successful in club history, with Málaga’s 2-0 victory at the Rosaleda putting the Andalusians into the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. The Spaniards advance on aggregate, 2-1, turning around their loss at FC Porto three weeks ago.

Momentum from that result seemed to carry over onto the beginning of Wednesday’s match, with Porto dictating play early. Just after the half-hour mark, Málaga came into the game, with a disallowed goal from Javier Saviola nearly equalizing. Minutes later Isco put a 19-yard shot over Helton and into the upper left hand corner, sending the teams into halftime tide at one.

For what had been a cagey tie from its kickoff in Porto, 1-1 not only seemed right but inevitable. The most evenly matched pairing of the knockout round was all square after 135 minutes, and if form held, it would stay that way through extra time. The styles employed by Porto’s Vitor Pereira and Málaga’s Manuel Pellegrini may have been distinctly different, but the combination left the teams at a standstill.

That’s why it’s intriguing to consider what could have been had Steven Defour not been sent off. After a first half that saw three Defour fouls put referee Nicola Rizzolo’s judgment to the test, Deforur continued pressing his luck in the second half. Finally, the official’s patience ran out, and Defour was dismissed in the 49th minute.

Some ejections define matches. This one didn’t, though it did limit Pereira’s options. The Porto manager burnt one substitution at half time and elected to use his second in the 58th minute, bringing off forward Silvestre Valera for defender Maicon. When he reversed that switch, bringing on Christian Atsu for Alex Sandro in the 70th minute, Pereira was down a man and out of subs.

When Roque Santa Cruz scored for Málaga in the 77th minute, Porto were locked in. After the Paraguayan put his side up 2-1, Porto couldn’t make any no adjustments. Meanwhile Pellegrini was able to bring on the quicker Lucas Paizon for Javier Saviola and the more defensive-minded Ignacio Camacho for Joaquin.

Defour’s ejection may not have decided the game (Malaga only outshot Porto 6-4 after his dismissal), but the adjustments Pereira had to make left him without any flexibility. When Santa Cruz headed home Málaga’s go-ahead goal, Porto were ill-equipped to chase the game.

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If that meant Málaga received a little bit of luck, it can be forgiven in light of what the team had to endure to start the season. Effectively abandoned by an ownership group that once aspired to spend Málaga to the top, the Andalusians lost their best player (Santi Cazorla) this summer in a financially motivated move. Pellegrini nearly left the team amid the uncertainty. Málaga were on the verge of being torn apart.

Now, despite their financial situation earning them a ban from next year’s competition, Málaga is in the final eight, and while they’ll be one of the teams favorites would prefer to draw in the quarterfinals, there are a couple of qualities to recommend the Andalusians.

Their defense can be as stalwart as any teams’ in Europe, with their ability to press through the middle having already frustrated the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

But perhaps most importantly, Pellegrini has been here before (with Villarreal), and this Málaga side carries the same determined attitude that’s characterized the Chilean’s other teams.

The resulting pragmatism means that as long as Málaga’s defense holds up, a resourceful and experienced group will have a puncher’s chance in the next round.