Six months ago, it looked like Malaga were falling apart for financial reasons after a record breaking season for them. But they have Manuel Pellegrini, a fantastic coach regardless of the money and players at his disposal, while Isco continues to prove he is the most talented youngster in Europe.
Porto can only blame themselves, heading as the favorites into this clash, for not finishing the job at the Dragao. Malaga barely made it past the halfway line in the first leg, and still managed to come away with a minimal 1-0 loss. In a match that was destined to look like a scrappy midfield battle and did for quite a long time, it was eventually one moment of Isco brilliance and a red card to Steven Defour that decided Malaga continue their magical run.
This wasn’t the Malaga we saw earlier in the competition, running over Milan, Zenit and Anderlecht with some exquisite football led by Isco, who scored two goals on the opening match and stopped finding the net, until the second leg of the knockout stage. It was a careful midfield battle, with Malaga trying to take advantage of Porto feeling quite confident despite not starting with James Rodriguez and playing with a very high defensive line, which Malaga tried to expose with quick penetrations into the box by Isco, Saviola and Joaquin, almost always resulting in an offside.
But then came Isco’s goal, and then came Defour’s red card. The Belgian never plays well as the wide man for Porto, but his presence was in order to add a joker in the middle of the pitch, winning the battle for the visitors. It worked pretty well until they conceded, which changed the way Porto defended. The moment it became 11 vs 10, Pellegrini changed his attempts at finding the second goal by introducing Roque Santa Cruz into the match, utilizing his aerial ability as Porto gave up on the middle of the pitch.
Malaga weren’t heading into the match in the best of form, but Porto had their own problems to deal with as well. A small team that shouldn’t be hanging with the big boys is now among the final 8 in the Champions League, thanks to great football brought on by a wonderful coach, using an amazing player, who’ll probably be a big star, probably somewhere else pretty soon. Malaga’s biggest achievement will be finishing among the top 4 in Spain once again, or their fantastic UCL run will turn out to be what it was for Villarreal; a nice memory that didn’t really help them avoid the fate that awaits all teams that aspire a little bit too high.