Ignacio Camacho

Champions League preview: The exaggerated gap between Borussia Dortmund, Málaga

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This tie is still way too close, especially if you overlook last week’s result to dwell on what’s going on around it. Both Borussia Dortmund and Málaga made big chances this weekend, but still BVB rolled through Augsburg, 4-2. Málaga, despite playing a defender and midfielder set to start on Tuesday, gave up four goals at Real Sociedad, losing 4-1. Combined with the growing feeling that Manuel Pellegrini’s team were lucky to preserve last Wednesday’s 0-0 and you’re apt to forget how close Málaga is to springing this upset.

“The first leg was not a bad result for us,” Málaga defender Martín Demichelis was compelled to affirm on Monday. “[A]ny who believe Dortmund are as good as through are mistaken.”

There’s little doubt Borussia Dortmund are the better team, but the gap between the two sides isn’t that big. All it takes is any of number of one-goal scenarios to come good and Dortmund could be out: A Neven Subotic error; a Mats Hummels gaff; one unmarked man on a corner; a bad foul in the final third; or a single offside call where the flag doesn’t come up. Combine those possibilities, the away goals rule, as well as a team whose Champions League inexperience could belie their talent and you wonder why one narrative’s being buried below another.

There’s a reason Pellegrini was content with last week’s result. The away goals rule plays a big part, with Borussia Dortmund forced to score twice at the Westfalenstadion if they concede. A bigger reason, though, is the approach Pellegrini’s instilled, one that allows his teams to take advantage of small openings while relying on a backbone that can withstand long periods of time where the team’s not in control.

“It will be important to show the qualities which have made us so strong in the past: intensity, aggression, intelligence,” Demichelis said, offering some adjectives to characterize Pellegrini’s approach. “If we can bring all those qualities to life, we can be on a par with BVB.”

Those qualities were on display last week, albeit in limited quantities. Yes, Dortmund were better, and on some days, they convert some of those first half chances. But thanks to Willy Caballero, they didn’t. As the game wore on, Málaga were able to stabilize. By full time, they had their own small set of would have-could have scenarios.

Málaga doesn’t need to outplay Dortmund on Tuesday. They just need to have as many goals as their hosts. A score draw (or better) will get a second Pellegrini debutant to the semifinals. It doesn’t matter if they get there on technical or artistic merit.

If Málaga can outlast Dortmund’s initial surge and get to halftime scoreless, they can start playing for those one-goal scenarios that will vault them into the final four. It’s BVB’s job to take those scenarios out of play as soon as possible.

Notes

  • Topping the list of reasons all this Málaga talk could go for naught: Robert Lewandowski. On Sunday the Bundesliga’s goals leader came off the bench to score in his 10th straight league game. He’s now up to 21 goals this season and has 51 league tallies since moving from Lech Poznan three years ago.
  • Another reason to doubt Málaga: Suspensions. Weligton’s out. Manuel Iturra is also out. Diego Lugano’s going to come into the defense, while Ignacio Camacho will start along side Jeremy Toulalan in midfield.
  • Dortmund, on the other hand, are returning to full strength. Hummels and Jakob Blaszczykowski are expected to play after missing leg one in Málaga. Roman Wiedenfeller and Marco Reus, both held out against Augsburg, should also start.
  • Should Hummels and Blaszczykowski not make the starting XI, Felipe Santana and Kevin Großkreutz will keep their spots.
  • Manuel Pellegrini was not with the team on Monday, the Málaga boss having flown back to Chile after the death of his father. He is expected to arrive in time to oversee Tuesday’s match.

Possible lineups

Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Roman Weidenfeller; Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Lukasz Piszczek; Ilkay Gundogan, Sebastian Kehl; Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakob Blaszczykowski; Robert Lewandowski.

Málaga (4-4-2): Willy Caballero; Antunes, Diego Lugano, Martín Demichelis, Jesús Gámez; Isco, Ignacio Camacho, Jeremy Toulálán, Joaquin; Júlio Baptista, Javier Saviola.

Highlights and context on Málaga’s survival against Borussia Dortmund

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As you watch Willy Caballero keep Málaga in today’s match against Borussia Dortmund, consider some of the things the highlights miss which tell us something about how leg two might unfold:

  • Málaga’s going to be without Weligton. They’ll also be without Manuel Iturra, both players suspended after accumulating too many yellow cards. Diego Lugano’s going to come in as will Ignacio Camacho, but Manuel Pellegrini’s going to be without two of his starters.
  • The highlights make it seem like Borussia Dortmund were about to pile on Málaga, but they finished with six shots on goal – a reasonable number. Málaga had three and held 50 percent of the ball, so if you’re an optimistic fan, you can convince yourself that a little tightening up in defense and some better tracking of Mario Götze could slow BVB down.

But the biggest hint of what we’ll see in leg two is in the highlights. Though they kept a clean sheet, Málaga had a lot of trouble with Dortmund’s attack, with Mario Gótze and Marco Reus having gilt edge chances to give BVB the lead.

In Germany, Jakub Błaszczykowski will be back, and Mats Hummels may return in defense. And of course, Dortmund will be at home.

For Málaga, there may be just as many clouds as silver linings.

Offshore drilling, Spain: Barcelona 3, at Málaga 1

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The typical formula for combating Barcelona is absorb their attack, stay very deep and compact, and on rely on counters. While the approach rarely leads to results, teams like Celtic, Chelsea, and Rubin Kazan have had success. Only José Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been able to go blow-for-blow with their rivals (and during the Special One’s first year in Madrid, it was too close to literal blows).

That’s why it’s surprising when a team like Málaga not only plays Barcelona straight up but is able to compete with Spain’s runaway leaders. For over a half on Sunday, only an aberrational first half mistake separated the two sides.

In the second, however, a Cesc Fabregas goal doubled Barcelona’s lead, and although Málaga again dialed up the intensity after a brief period of shock, Barcelona a superficially comfortable 3-1 victory.

It’s not exaggeration to say this game could have gone either way. Ignacio Camacho’s ill-advised first half back pass (after a collision between Málaga teammates on a Willy Caballero goal kick) gifted Lionel Messi the half’s only goal. Before that, Málaga was almost as dangerous as Barcelona, frequently able to get at their opponent down Barça’s right flank.

Given the tenacity with which Málaga was playing, the game may have broke differently were it not for one unfortunate, atypical mistake.

Man of the Match: Barcelona was playing, right? OK, then: Lionel Messi was Man of the Match.

The choice is both the default and justified. While the opening goal was gifted — Camacho’s backpass easily intercepted before Messi rounded Caballero at the edge of the area to finish into an open net — Messi assisted on each of Barça’s other goals. In the second half, a nice 20-yard diagonal allowed Fábregas to race past Sergio Sánchez and finish against Caballero’s left post. On Thiago Alcantera’s 82nd minute goal, Messi laid off a pass to the substitute midfielder ahead of his 19-yard blast.

(MORE: Video of Messi’s goal Sunday)

By Messi’s standards, it was an average day. He less dominant than opportunistic, but in match where Málaga’s tenaciousness held most of his teammates in check, the Ballon d’ Or winner was still the game’s best player.

Threesome of knowledge

1. Beware Málaga in Champions League – Spain-based Guardian and Sports Illustrated correspondent Sid Lowe was high on Málaga’s chances to go far in Champions League when December’s knockout round draw was made. Manuel Pellegrini’s team had cruised through their group, but against a floundering Milan, a Zenit squad in turmoil, and an outgunned Anderlecht, it was difficult to gauge how ready Málaga was for the next phase.

If Málaga plays like they did today, they’ll be a major threat in the knockout round. Few teams have players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets in midfield. The elite talents of that trio were the only thing that kept Barcelona in control at the Rosaleda. Were it not for the midfielder-esque skills of central defenders Gerard Pique and (to a lesser extent) Javier Mascherano, Barça would have been thrown off by high pressure from Roque Santa Cruz and  (and Jeremy Toulalan and Camacho in behind them). Less talented teams would have crumbled.

Even Real Madrid at their best — as talented but slower than Barcelona — would have had trouble. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are capable of dealing with Málaga, but teams like Manchester United, Juventus, and Paris Saint Germain? They’d struggle.

Porto – Málaga’s Round of 16 opponent? They’re in trouble.

2. That extra dimension of Andrés Iniesta – Were it not for Andrés Iniesta’s ability to turn upfield and move the ball vertically, Barcelona may have been relegated to knocking the ball sideways to try and get around Toulalan and Camacho. But at various moments in the match (most importantly, during Málaga’s last surge in the middle of the second half), Iniesta’s ability to dribble through Málaga’s initial pressure was the only thing that allowed Barcelona to keep the ball.

It was an example of the exquisite balance in Barcelona’s midfield. Neither Xavi nor Busquets are capable of carrying the ball like Iniesta, yet Iniesta can’t run a game like Xavi. And neither man’s capable of providing Busquets’ support.

Today, Barcelona needed Iniesta to shine. When teams pack it in, they’ll need Xavi to unlock them. And against teams that can win the ball and counter through the middle, Busquets will need to step up.

3. Barcelona’s defense coming around – Early this season, Barcelona’s defense looked suspect, but because their opponents rarely had the ball, the goals allowed numbers stayed low. Yet when you watched Tito Vilanova’s team you couldn’t help but wonder what teams like Bayern Munich would do to them in Champions League.

Now the defense is coming around. During Málaga’s first half advances, the back stayed organized as attacks into the space behind Daniel Alves forced the defense to reorganize. Gerard Pique (playing right-center half) calmly forced the play away from goal, where Sergio Busquets dropping into the back left the team prepared to deal with Málaga’s followup.

Instead of seeing their defenders isolated and desperate, Barcelona fans saw their team coolly deal with the type of attacks they’ll see against the world’s better teams. And with their defense playing better, those fans have reason to expect their guys will hold up.

Packaged for takeaway

  • By the end of the game, Barcelona’s possession number was at a typical 64 percent, though the shots on goal only favored them 4-2. Most of possession came in the second half after Fábregas’s goal temporarily disillusioned Málaga.
  • At times, there seems to be little difference between the team’s two right backs: Spanish internationals Jordi Alba (Barcelona) and Nacho Monreal (Malaga). But in the second half, Alba flashed the quality that sets him apart, coming from nowhere to overlap Iniesta in the box during one mid-half movement. Nothing came of it, but the speed with which Alba joined the attack created a “yeah, that’s what makes him different” moment.
  • Were it not for some strong reads early from Caballero, Barcelona may have rolled out to a typically easy victory. Three times in the first half hour Caballero charged off his line to deal with attacks. Still, it was an early stop on Lionel Messi that really deserves some attention. It wasn’t a leaping save, so you won’t see it in a highlight, but in going to ground on his right arm before reaching across his body to stop the ball with his left, Caballero showed the type of athleticism that’s often overlooked. A lot of goalkeepers can make the leaping stop, but to be able to both divert an attacker and recover to block his followup is something that would ask too much of a lot of pure shot-stoppers.