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.
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.
So 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.
- 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.
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.