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Malaga riding out season storm in style

Madrid: Reports that Malaga's Qatari owner wanted to exit after only two years, silence from the board room, a fire sale of top players and delayed wages was hardly the best preparation for their first Champions League campaign.

Yet, as sometimes happens in times of adversity, the Andalusian club's off-field problems appeared to forge a bond between the players and staff that sharpened their focus and made them hungrier for success.

Led by cerebral Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini, Malaga's perfect start to their European campaign has put them on the verge of a place in the knockout phase and they took the prize scalp of seven-times European champions AC Milan on the way.

The 1-0 win at home to the Italians last month left jubilant fans rubbing their eyes and victory at the San Siro on Tuesday will put Malaga into the last 16 of the elite club competition as group winners if Zenit St Petersburg fail to beat Anderlecht.

Saturday's 2-1 La Liga defeat at home to Rayo Vallecano was a rare failure at their Rosaleda stadium but they remain in fourth, two points behind third-placed champions Real Madrid.

"Besides the fact that we have a group of extremely talented players we have a very capable coach," their United States central defender Oguchi Onyewu, who joined Malaga on loan in the close season, told Reuters after the Rayo defeat.

"He knows what he's doing and the team is comfortable and confident with his style of play," added the 30-year-old in a telephone interview.

"The cohesiveness of the team is really the reason that we've been able to get some good results."

Targeted, Controlled

Owner Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al Thani, who briefly met the players at the Milan game, let it be known in early September that he was not looking to sell up.

The club then announced it was starting a process of "internal restructuring" to make it financially viable.

The extent of the club's problems was highlighted when Malaga were among 23 teams to have prize money withheld as European soccer's governing body UEFA revealed the first sanctions under its Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.

The club's new director general Vicente Casado told Reuters last month that the restructuring plan was designed to ensure the club complied with the UEFA regulations and any future investment would be "targeted and controlled".

After the departure of Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla to Arsenal and Venezuela striker Rondon to Rubin Kazan, Malaga signed cheaper replacements including Argentine forward Javier Saviola, Onyewu and Paraguay striker Roque Santa Cruz.

Pellegrini and the players held what the former Real coach called a "positive meeting" with executive vice president Moayad Shatat this week and he said they were able to reach an agreement with management on settling outstanding wages.

"The players understood the reasons," Pellegrini told a news conference on Friday. "The issue is closed for me and for the players as well. There is confidence in the words of the club's representative."

Onyewu, who has played in France, Belgium, England, Italy and Portugal, said Pellegrini's role was important in keeping the team focused and paid tribute to the professionalism of the players.

"We're all adults and we understand that this is our job," he said. "Regardless of the outside factors we all have to perform well first and foremost on the field. I think that's what our main objective is regardless of what happens.

"Obviously, I have played for a number of other teams and, without going into specifics, there have been better locker rooms than others.

"But right now I find myself in one that's very positive and welcoming. When you have good players and those good players are also good people it makes it easy."

Different Boat


At this week's meeting, Shatat was at pains to stress that the club's problems were in the past and Onyewu, who arrived right at the end of the transfer window on Aug. 31, said he would be giving management the benefit of the doubt for now.

"It's great to hear that and hopefully that will be the case but only time can tell," he said. "If someone says something you like to believe them until it's proven wrong.

"Obviously, I'm in a different boat than some of the other players who might be a little less inclined to believe that, but for me personally I have no reason not to as of right now and it's not something I am really focusing on.

"There are players who are a little more sceptical but, as I said, we're going to wait and see and trust his words until they are proven true or false."

Malaga have shown how fast things can turn sour in football but if the players continue to perform they can hold their heads high even if the excitement generated by the arrival of Al Thani's millions turns into disappointment should he depart.

(Agencies)

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