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Crucial week ahead as Malaga make a final push towards the promised land
- Updated: 25 April, 2012
A bone chilling wind and driving rain blew through the Reyno de Navarra stadium in Pamplona on Monday night, as a familiar story unfolded for Malaga fans watching from the warmth of their living rooms. Their team were clearly the better side over the ninety minutes, but it took another superb long range strike from Santi Cazorla to rescue a point against an Osasuna side still very much in the hunt for a Europa League spot.
Joaquin’s early miss was followed by a thumping drive from Nacho Monreal which crashed off the post and to safety as the visitors had the better of a goalless first half, before a goal early in the second by Nino for the hosts threatened to prove decisive. However the former Villarreal midfielder rescued his side with his ninth goal of the season, his best ever tally in La Liga, and had a late header from Camacho been an inch or two lower and thus not hit the crossbar, a deserved three points would surely have been secured.
Unfortunately at a time when things are getting seriously tight at the top, Manuel Pellegrini’s men have now recorded just one win in their last five outings, and that against doomed Racing de Santander. Despite this poor run of form at exactly the wrong time, they remain three points clear of Levante and four ahead of Athletic and Atletico in the race for fourth place, but their next two fixtures may yet hold the key to their entire campaign. Third placed Valencia visit La Rosaleda on Sunday for what should be an epic encounter, with a win for the home side drawing them level on points with ‘los che’, although victory by a three goal margin would be required to see them take over in third place.
Next up after that is a trip to the Camp Nou to face a Barcelona who suddenly only have the Copa Del Rey left as an option in their quest to collect some more silverware, and who thus just might not present quite such a formidable obstacle even at home as before their Clásico defeat. A return of two points from six would still be far from disastrous against such difficult opposition, but with the chasing pack having on paper an easier time of it (not one of the trio play a side in the top half of the table over the next two rounds of competition), Malaga’s Champions League fate may well be decided at the Vicente Calderon on May 6th against Diego Simeone’s equally inconsistent but sporadically brilliant Atletico outfit.
At least Pellegrini is close to having his best squad available to him for what is easily the hardest run-in of all the contenders, although key players Isco and Welligton continue to walk a disciplinary tightrope just one booking away from suspension. Joaquin’s return to fitness was underlined by a seventy minute appearance in the most testing of conditions in Navarra, and he will surely start against his former club at the weekend. Nacho Camacho’s return to the side has gone some way towards covering for the loss of the injured Jeremy Toulalan, and has also allowed Martin Demichelis to switch to his more natural position in central defence. Meanwhile Carlos Karmeni has proved his worth in place of injured first choice ‘keeper Willy Caballero, save for a rather harsh red card against Villarreal.
However Malaga’s biggest problem remains in front of goal, and of all their long term absentees, it is the fact that Julio Baptista has started just four games all season which may yet prove to be decisive. The goals seem finally to have dried up for Ruud van Nistelrooy, and whilst young Venezuelan striker Rondon has weighed in with nine, he has been relatively ineffective in recent weeks. Nevertheless despite all the expectation that was aroused by the last summer’s spending spree, it is still a considerable achievement to be still in the Champions League mix with just four games to go, and at the very least ‘los boquerones’ will surely be involved in Europa League action in 2012-13.Follow @icentrocampista