Manuel Pellegrini’s Malaga travel to the San Mames on Sunday night to face Athletic Bilbao, in what is sure to be a very interesting game in La Liga (6.50pm BST, Sunday Sept 23).
Malaga have been a real surprise package so far this season. We know they have good players and a good manager, but how much could they do after the sobering summer they just had?
They’re currently second in the league table having avoided defeat so far this season. In addition, they have just convincingly dispatched a very strong Zenit St Petersburg side in the Champions League.
The departure of Santi Cazorla was always going to mean Isco would be given the full share of the limelight. So far, the young Spanish international is playing exceptionally well.
Two great goals against Zenit, the second of which was a real wonder-strike, surely puts Isco right up there with some of the very best on the continent. He’ll pull the strings, he’ll find holes in the opposition defence and he’ll emerge as the talisman for Malaga this season.
Javier Saviola is also looking in good shape for his new side. He has a goal in each of his two previous games, and he certainly has the intelligence to get the better of Athletic’s defence.
I mentioned previously that Manuel Pellegrini is giving plenty of chances to the youngsters in the Malaga team, and Francisco Portillo scored a wonderful goal last week against Levante.
Malaga are flying high at the moment and have plenty of confidence and belief. Importantly, the fans are also fully behind this team and their attempts to move on from the disappointments of the summer transfer window. La Rosaleda was a packed house against Levante and there were plenty to see Malaga’s debut in the Champions League proper against Zenit.
In contrast, things have been very edgy at Athletic Bilbao in recent months. We all know the sharp downturn in fortunes they’ve had from their exciting performances of last season, but a bright spark may be the return of Fernando Llorente to the first team.
Llorente, who seemed destined to join Javi Martinez through the exit door at San Mames, rejoined his teammates against Espanyol last weekend. The Spanish international was quick to remind us of his talents as he buried a goal just minutes after coming on a substitute.
He’s had injury problems in recent weeks so it remains to be seen whether he’ll start against Malaga. What is certain, though, is that Bilbao’s supporters need to accept him back into the team for the short time that he’ll be with them.
Away from Llorente, Aritz Aduriz is the man picking up the goals for Marcelo Bielsa’s side. The former Valencia striker helped himself to two goals last weekend and has five in all competitions so far.
A big injury concern for Malaga is the loss of Jeremy Toulalan. The Frenchman wasn’t available for the home tie against Zenit in midweek, but the side looked to cope well without him.