I have been at nearly half of Manuel Pellegrini's matches in UEFA competition and I think there is a very real argument that Tuesday's was his finest of all.
Yes, even compared with his Villarreal CF team's clutch of draws with the mighty Manchester United FC and 1-0 victory over FC Internazionale Milano, or any of his nights in charge of Real Madrid CF. Yellow Submariners at Villarreal might disagree, but they'll look affectionately, if a little enviously, at the matchday one achievement of the man they knew as the 'Engineer'.
The most striking aspect of Málaga CF's 3-0 Group C win against FC Zenit St Petersburg was not the scoreline, nor even their delightfully creative use of the ball when in possession. The best thing was the reminder of how wonderful football is at its core. This was a face-off between a club which had the resources to add the likes of Axel Witsel and Hulk over the summer, and a Málaga outfit forced to sell the crown jewels.
Out went Santi Cazorla – a Pellegrini favourite – José Rondon and ten others. The future of their other uncut diamond, Isco, was in the balance until qualification for the UEFA Champions League group stage was confirmed. Javier Saviola was a last-minute recruit. What impresses me most is that Pellegrini has managed to design and build something robust and valuable out of the left-over components.
He was the one who first spoke out about the need to rectify problems from top to bottom at the Costa del Sol club. He was the one who told the remaining players that he was "staying to finish the job – if you stay with me, we'll achieve something". He was the steadying influence, a calm voice amid the storm.
Then he reverted to the most basic facts of this sport: unite the squad, get them fit, educate them to keep the ball and then set them loose in front of fiercely proud fans. Football's core values ultimately look to have rescued Málaga from some testing times – uplifting indeed.
Perhaps resources are a little thin given that the squad has been trimmed, and perhaps the energy expended in the type of display required to beat Zenit will not be something Pellegrini can count on until May.
Nonetheless, neither his nor Málaga's values will change. However much of a test of stamina it is competing at the top of the Spanish Liga while also attempting to qualify for the UEFA Champions League knockout phase, both engineer and workforce will try to construct something effective and attractive. Thanks to them for that.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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