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Malaga faces troubling reality after dream run in Champions League

Photo: Martin Meissner/AP

Martin Demichelism and Malaga, fifth in La Liga, play Valencia on Saturday.

Joaquín Sánchez said that he and his teammates had never experienced anything like it. It was four days after Málaga had been cruelly denied a Champions League semifinal with two late goals by Borussia Dortmund, the second of them offside, and as the team bus arrived at La Rosaleda it was greeted by thousands of fans singing and chanting, letting off fireworks and applauding the players. Inside, the stadium was packed, the atmosphere better than ever before, a real sense of communion between pitch and stands.

There was a moment's reflection before Saturday's match with Osasuna in honor of Manuel Pellegrini's father, who had died just days before the semifinal at the age of 95. The coach had traveled back to Chile for the funeral but returned in time for the trip to Dortmund. After the moment's reflection, impeccably observed, fans chanted Pellegrini's name. He timidly raised a hand in gratitude. Genuine sentiment, heartfelt. These had been seven extremely hard days, but seven days to be proud of.

"It has been emotional," Pellegrini said.

When Julio Baptista finally scored the game's only goal, there was something symbolic about it: the striker called it more than just a goal. They deserved it; it felt right, a reward. After all the pain and the anger of their European exit, after the natural bitterness of players, supporters and coach, after the absurd, disingenuous accusations of the club's owner Sheik Abdullah Al-Thani, who put Málaga's elimination down to "racism, pure and simple," after the newspaper columns calling UEFA a mafia, it was time for heroes not villains. Time for affection and gratitude, to judge what Málaga had done for what it was: a colossal achievement.

Defender Martin Demichelis admitted that he has been over the game time and time again in his head. Forgetting the "robbery," burying entirely the suspicions, looking beyond that moment when Málaga suddenly had its semifinal place snatched away, is impossible. But, the fury subsiding, it made more sense now to remember the good, not the bad, to focus elsewhere and celebrate a debut season in which the club had reached the Champions League quarterfinals, in which it had beaten AC Milan and been seconds away from a semifinal. It could have been historic, some said. It already had been.

Yet if the 1-0 win over Osasuna had a kind of cathartic quality to it, a sense of celebration, it also represented a watershed. What happened next was perhaps inevitable. The Champions League was a shared dream that eclipsed all else, an objective into which everything was subsumed; no complaints, no moaning, all in it together for a collective goal. But once that dream was destroyed and recognition for their achievements granted, the paper was pulled back away to reveal the cracks. Back to life, back to reality. And Málaga's reality is a troubling one.

Málaga has been banned from next season's European competition because of its financial problems, although the club has appealed, and it has not lost hope of a successful resolution when the case goes to the Court of Arbitration in Sport in the summer. And within the club, those who truly are Malaguistas have worked tirelessly to meet their financial obligations, including selling Santi Cazorla in the summer -- a decision that Pellegrini has publicly criticized on numerous occasions. Teams who were owed money have been paid, and negotiations have been held with the state over outstanding debts.

But Málaga is not yet clear of debt, and without further investment from Al-Thani, who continues to stay away from the city even as he rants and rails on Twitter, the problems remain. And there is no sign of investment. Players have reportedly not been paid for the last two months and nor have the coaching staff. Few talked about it while a semifinal place was the prize held before them; soon after that, they started.

Jeremy Toulalan's agent admitted that his client was thinking over an offer from Atlético Madrid -- and that it was not the only offer he had. Then Pellegrini's agent, Jesús Martínez, publicly denounced the situation.

"The coaching staff are not up to date [on pay]," he said. "It looks like Malaga is a fairy tale. In sporting terms, perhaps it is. But institutionally, it is not. The press is not digging into the truth of Malaga; they're not being fair or sensible with the fans. The club is not perfect, you can't go on with a slow leak. You can't promise things that you then don't deliver."

Málaga's future, Martínez admitted, is "up in the air." Which means of course that so is Pellegrini's: "He wants the project to be consolidated, he wants to see it being what it was supposed to be," Martínez added. The coach has a ?4 million release clause. Málaga could do with that money.

When the coach appeared on Cadena Cope radio the following night, his tone was moderate, measured, strikingly different to that of his agent. He was diplomatic, and he denied talking to other clubs and insisted that he was happy in the city and at the club.

"My future will depend more on what Málaga do than what offers come in," he insisted. Which might sound like good news for Málaga, but it carried a clear message. "There has to be a structured project," Pellegrini said. "I would like to stay at Málaga if there is a project that is similar to the one I came here for."

And that's the thing: Málaga's project will not be similar to the one that Pellegrini came for. In the summer that the Chilean coach joined the club, their net spend was greater than anyone else in Spain. But the interest and the cash soon dried up. Al-Thani virtually disappeared. And by the following summer, there was a completely different approach: rather than signing players, they started selling them. Cazorla went for a price that Pellegrini warned was "a gift," but those charged with sorting out the mess had no choice. Of the nine players that arrived in summer 2011, five have already gone. By the end of this coming summer they might all be gone.

Barring a last-minute turnaround, the clearout will continue, and it will because it has to, because those who are actually running the club are confronted with a reality. Only renewed investment from Al-Thani can change that now. The likelihood is that Malaga will not just sell those players for whom they can get decent fees but also those that charge decent wages. Isco, the star this season, is the man that will spark the most interest. His recent contract renewal was not a declaration of his intention to stay or the club's determination to keep him, but preparation for a departure that suits everyone.

He will not be the only one to depart. There are already tentative plans to make wholesale changes to the squad; the cuts will be massive.

In the meantime, the uncertainty makes it worse. Coach and players depend on each other; the wait pushes both toward the door.

"The longer it takes to find a solution, the more things will be up in the air," Demichelis said. "Things need to be accelerated and sorted out. If Pellegrini goes it is because Málaga are no longer aiming at something big. And that would remove much of my motivation. The first thing this club has to do if it want to achieve important things is secure the future of the coach."

Malaga's exit in the Champions League was not how it dreamed it; what came next was how some feared it. Nothing will ever take away from what Málaga achieved this season. But now sad reality takes over, and the likelihood is that the problems have only just begun.

"Toulalan and Pellegrini's agents spoke," Demichelis said. "And the longer things go on like this, the more [discordant] voices there will be."

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