Ex-Real Madrid and Villarreal boss Manuel Pellegrini, appointed Málaga manager seven days ago, marked his return to Spanish football with a 3-2 triumph over Hércules to send his new team through to the last sixteen of the Copa del Rey. But it needed a last-gasp header from diminutive Uruguayan striker Sebastián Fernández to make it a happy one for the 57-year old Chilean; it was the first time this season Málaga have won at home in six attempts.
The first leg had ended goalless, and despite only 5,000 spectators present Pellegrini received a tumultuous welcome, the new-found optimism around La Rosaleda clearly evident after a disastrous start to the campaign that has seen Málaga slip to bottom of the league. The cup, therefore, came as a welcome diversion for the players, particularly since some of them have disappointed after the new Qatari owners invested €17 million in the squad during the summer.
As so often happens the arrival of a new boss has an instantaneous effect, and it was no different this time as the home side found themselves two goals to the good in the opening 15 minutes. First Eliseu got himself on the end of Owusu-Abeiye’s superb through ball after 11 minutes to beat keeper Velthuizen – though the visitors could have levelled immediately afterwards when Cristián saw his effort headed off the line by Brazilian defender Weligton – then the recalled Edinho nipped in to score after Juanra had left his backpass short.
It was the perfect start for Costa del Sol side and they might have added to their tally shortly afterwards, Fernando seeing his header flash just wide of a post and Owusu-Abeiye having a fierce volley come back off the woodwork. Hércules then lost the injured Velthuizen, who was replaced in goal by former Málaga stopper Calatayud, but they got themselves back into the game on the half hour mark when Portillo fired home a pass from Thomert to reduce the arrears. Málaga continued to go forward and Eliseu could have got a third when his fierce volley came back off a post, and Esteban Vigo’s men were glad to hear the half time whistle with just the one goal deficit.
It was different story after the break. Málaga’s attacking display in the first half seemed to have been forgotten as the defensive frailties that have seen them concede 22 goals in 10 league games returned. It therefore came as no surprise when Abel Aguilar equalised on 64 minutes, the Colombian taking advantage of a through pass from Cristián to easily beat Arnau. However, three minutes later Abel Aguilar blotted his copybook when he received a second yellow card to leave his team a man short. It was just the incentive a resurgent Málaga needed, but try as they might they found it increasingly difficult to break through the away team’s defensive rearguard. With full time approaching it was beginning to look as if Hércules’ away goals had been enough to take them through, but in the 90th minute Jesús Gámez made a surging run down the right and his cross was nodded home by substitute Fernández to give Málaga victory.
The relief was palpable for both players and fans alike, though the new manager is too much of an old fox to think that his team have turned the corner just yet. There is still much work to be done with a squad that has seen its confidence slowly drained over the past few weeks, but after the game Pellegrini pronounced himself moderately satisfied with his team’s display. “It was a difficult game but it was important to win at home, something that has so far proved elusive”he said. “We put them under pressure in the first half but then tended to speed up the play, with the result that we lost a lot of possession. Perhaps it was the insecurity of going 2-1 up and knowing that to concede another goal could eliminate us. We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us and Levante on Sunday will be another hard game.”
Dave Redshaw is the author of ‘Málaga Football Club – The Story.’