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Málaga, best Champions League club so far, almost didn't make it

You must be Joaquín. Well, it could hardly be anyone else: somehow it had to be him.

Joaquín is always joking. A cheeky scamp with the broad accent of the province of Cádiz, famed for its laid-back attitude and humor, Joaquín seems to have a permanent smile on his face and glint in his eye. This is the player who gigglingly admitted that he was breast fed to the age of seven. Laughing, he said, "We'd play football out on the square and when we took a break the other boys would run for water, I ran to my mother's breast!" The tricky winger who always wanted to be a bullfighter, and the man who played like that, too -- all feints and turns and tricks. Musho arte, as they say.

It is an image that Joaquín has occasionally sought to downplay as his career has gone on but then the eye glints and the smile creeps across his face once more. He just can't help himself.

Normally when new signings are presented, they do a few kick ups, wave at the fans and smile a bit before telling everyone that they hope to be a success, will work hard and will play wherever the manager tells them to play. On the day that Joaquín was presented as a Málaga player, he performed bullfighting passes with a Málaga flag and then took to the mic. Not to tell the press how hard he was going to work but to tell the fans a joke. A joke that told the story of a Málaga fan trying to find a seat in a packed stadium for a Champions League.

Many a true word said in jest.

It may not have been the final, but this week Málaga's Rosaleda stadium was jammed for the arrival of the big time -- AC Milan. They are seven times winners of the competition, more than anyone else bar Real Madrid, a true giant of the game. This is Málaga's first season in the Champions League. They were excited enough during the qualifying games in August -- there is something special about the competition anthem, musical confirmation that you have made it. They were more excited still when they reached the group. But Wednesday trumped them all. The Champions League at the Rosaleda. Málaga! No joke.

This was the biggest game in Europe, and one that had captured the imagination. "We knew that everyone in Spain was keeping an eye on us and that they were all behind us," Joaquín said.

He was at the heart of it. Against Valladolid in the league at the weekend he missed a penalty, only to make up for it with a ludicrously cool finish in the dying minutes, rolling the ball under his foot and around the goalkeeper. Here, he again missed a penalty. Rather than grumble, the fans began to chant his name. And again Joaquín made up for it, finishing off a clever one-two with Iturra.

"I didn't deliberately miss the penalty, I promise," he joked. "But it seems to be written that way. You suffer much more that way, but in the end you enjoy it more, too. It's like bullfighting: you can leave the ring out the back door or through the puerta grande."

He added, "I must admit, a tear came to my eye."

He was not the only one. There is something inescapably emotional about Málaga's Champions League campaign, something deeper about the sentiment. Not least the fact that for a while it looked like, having finally earned a place in the Champions League, they might not be able to occupy that place. This summer, Málaga's multi-million Euro project appeared to be in ruins. The club's owner, Sheik Al-Thani, who had poured over €150 million into the club, had gone quiet; the debts racked up and the cash from Qatar dried up.

Málaga owed money to other clubs and to the Spanish taxman. They owed money to players, too, who hadn't been paid. Four of them made a formal complaint. The government had declared a new, tougher stance on debts to the state. The league became involved, the federation too. Through them, UEFA was keeping close tabs. The deadline loomed for satisfying debts. Fail to meet it, and Málaga would not be able to compete in the competition. So they acted -- swiftly and resolutely and the only way they could.

Promises were made to the players and, most importantly, kept. Santi Cazorla was sold -- "gifted" in the words of the coach Manolo Pellegrini -- and so was Solomon Rondón. Other players talked about going, there were discussions with the coach over his future. And the sporting director was invited to leave. The money raised cleared the debts but debilitated the team. Or so it seemed. The truth has been different.

First the fear was that Málaga would not be allowed to compete in the Champions League; then the fear was that they would not be able to compete in the Champions League. They had survived their greatest fear, they were still in the competition, but the excitement was tinged with pessimism, a concern that their first appearance in the Champions League would be an embarrassing one.

The fans, though, responded in their thousands. They bought tickets and made a hell of a noise. The excitement built. Within the club employees, life-long Málaga fans, fought to stabilize the situation, and the players responded, too: quietly, Pellegrini and his squad got on with their work. Focus on the football blocked out the crisis. They grew in adversity; players stepped up and took responsibility. Cazorla had gone to Arsenal, but Isco, in particular, has been superb. Joaquín, too.

And on Wednesday night Málaga beat Milan 1-0. "What I take away with me is not the fact that we won, but how we won," Pellegrini said. How did they win? Deservedly, dominating from start to finish. Much as they have done all season. Interviewed by Onda Cero radio, Joaquín was told of his coach's remarks. "Exactly," he said. "We played the way we have been playing." Milan is not what Milan once was, but it mattered little. What mattered was this: far from the fears, Málaga is the best team in Europe.

They have won three out of three and have not conceded a goal -- the only side in the competition with three clean sheets to its name (five if you count the two qualifying games). Played three, won three; scored seven, conceded zero, they are virtually into the next round and, with a five-point lead over Milan in second and six over Zenit in third, probably as the group winners, meaning they will avoid any other first-placed teams and all Spanish sides. A place in the quarterfinal does not so much look like a possibility as a probability. Small wonder Marca's cover ran on "The Never Ending Dream." "Not even Milan can stop Málaga," cheered AS.

The doors they feared closing in their faces now open before them. Joaquín and his team left through the puerta grande.

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