Juan Ramón López Muñiz brought Málaga into La Liga in 2008 after a two-year hiatus in the second division. Throughout his playing career, he played on teams constantly scrambling either to stay in La Liga or to be promoted to the first division. He knows the mentality that a team needs to eschew whatever poor results it had throughout the season and focus on the final few matches of the campaign that define a team.
When Marcelino García Toral left sixth-place Racing de Santander in 2008 to resurrect Real Zaragoza from the Segunda División, López Muñiz jumped at the chance to train a team at the top half of the table, a sensation he had never felt in both his playing and managing stints. An added perk with the high-flying Asturian side included their first UEFA Cup berth in the club’s history due to their sixth place position from a season ago.
Entrance into the knockout stage of the UEFA Cup went to the final group matchday, and while López Muñiz’s men took care of business at El Sardinero with a 3-1 victory over a Manchester City side that already secured qualification, Péguy Luyindula’s 86th minute goal for Paris Saint-Germain against FC Twente gave the Parisians a 4-0 lead and the one goal they needed to edge Santander in goal difference.
Racing Santander never fully recovered from that European night when they came within a few minutes of reaching the next phase of the UEFA Cup, and they strolled through the rest of the La Liga campaign comfortably in mid-table, never threatening to qualify for Europe for the second consecutive year. Racing chairman Francisco Pernía released López Muñiz from his contract at the end of the season, fairly or unfairly, but either way, López Muñiz failed in his first tour with a team in the top division.
Just as Marcelino García Toral abandoned Racing to revive Real Zaragoza, a perennial La Liga team who had fallen to the division below, Antonio Tapia, the man who replaced López Muñiz at Málaga in the summer of 2008, deserted Málaga after the 2008-09 season to rejuvenate Real Betis, another big club that suffered relegation. Tapia left a team that hovered around the European places for a vast majority of the season, and when Málaga chairman Fernando Sanz asked López Muñiz to return to the helm as Málaga manager, López Muñiz welcomed the second opportunity.
Sanz was a loyal servant to Málaga as a player for eight years after he could not break into the Real Madrid starting eleven, the club that, at the time, was directed by his father Lorenzo Sanz. Immediately after retiring in 2006, Fernando Sanz was established as the club president after father Lorenzo bought nearly all of the shares associated with the club. Sanz’s first action involved the signing of Juan Ramón López Muñiz, a former assistant of Juande Ramos when he coached Málaga in the 2003-04 season. Experiencing what López Muñiz accomplished in his two years in Málaga, lifting the club back into La Liga, Sanz was not hesitant in rehiring the man that left him the previous season.
López Muñiz’s squad, however, was not nearly as talented as the one Antonio Tapia’s squad worked with in the previous season. Lolo returned to Sevilla after his year-long loan, Nacho moved to Real Betis, Javier Calleja signed with Osasuna, and Eliseu Pereira, now with Real Zaragoza, transferred to Lazio for €1 million.
Málaga started this current campaign with the surprise of Jornada 1 when they comprehensively dismissed Atlético Madrid 3-0 at La Rosaleda. Hindsight says that Atlético’s inconsistent form in La Liga has diminished Málaga’s win, but after that first weekend, López Muñiz’s could not fly any higher. Then reality punched them in the mouth, and the Andalucians would not collect their second win until Jornada 15, a span of fourteen matches and nearly four months.
With nine different sackings in La Liga so far this season, López Muñiz would have been expected to be one of those firings, but Fernando Sanz kept faith in his man, although Sanz’s normally placid demeanor became increasingly frustrated every time the cameras would focus on the presidential boxes at various stadiums around Spain.
Málaga would improve, but their tenuous margin above the relegation zone continued to dwindle, and at the start of Jornada 34, Málaga was only one point ahead of 18th place Tenerife, and the bottom three clubs were ascending at the perfect time, whereas Málaga’s dip came at the worst time possible.
Málaga’s recent form did not suggest any positive result as they traveled to the Balearic Islands and encountered Mallorca in the ONO Estadi. Mallorca had won fourteen of their sixteen home matches, their only losses coming at the hands of Barcelona and Sevilla. With Mallorca fighting for the final Champions League berth with Sevilla, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao, they could not afford to slip up against a desperate Málaga side.
López Muñiz’s strategy in the first half was to muck up the play in the midfield and prevent Borja Valero and Gonzalo Castro from providing pinpoint service to Aritz Aduriz, and Málaga employed this tactic perfectly. Víctor Casadesús and Castro could not fly down the wings, and Apoño and Juanito snuffed out Valero’s creativity in the midfield.
When Felipe Mattioni floated a long cross from the right wing in the 44th minute, it seemed a harmless ball, but Málaga goalkeeper Gustavo Munúa failed to get any contact on it. The ball bounced in front of the six-yard box and struck the left far post. Aduriz headed the rebound off the post for a sure goal, but Málaga central defender Milan Stepanov, the only Málaga player that could have prevented Aduriz’s header from crossing the line, stuck out his arm to stop the ball, and referee Manuel Mejuto González immediately sent him off with a straight red card.
Stepanov’s handball was a killer blow for Málaga because they worked their boots off to limit Mallorca’s goal-scoring chances, and to concede a penalty as well as go a man down so late in the first half could have understandably crushed Málaga’s shrinking spirit. Munúa, however, saved Chori Castro’s mediocre penalty, and that momentum carried them through the second half, when after defending for the whole half and ceding nearly 70% possession, Victor Obinna scored in the 86th minute to give Málaga a stunning 0-1 advantage.
From a hopeful Jesús Gámez cross, José Luís Martí half-heartedly cleared it with the back of his foot but only into the direction of Obinna in the box, and he smashed his first-time effort into the bottom corner of the right near post. The exasperated fans could not believe their eyes, and they immediately started to file out in silence.
The Mallorca players kept with the fight, and equally stunning was their equalizer in the first minute of stoppage time. From Julio Álvarez’s free kick, Nunes headed it off Rubén’s head and into the direction of Aduriz who scored on a header of his own from a few yards away. Gustavo Munúa protested to referee Manuel Mejuto González that Mallorca striker Alhassane Keita took him down in the box and prevented him from challenging Aduriz’s header, but Munúa’s objections would only lead to a yellow card for dissent.
The incident could have gone either way. Iván González pushed Keita down, and while he was sprawled on the floor, Munúa stumbled over him as he tried to contest Aduriz for the ball. Mejuto González ruled that Keita did not purposefully attempt to trip Munúa, and it was unfortunate that he was in Munúa’s path towards Aduriz.
1-1 fulltime, and Apoño and Gustavo Munúa could not contain their anger, both spewing abusive profanity and needing their fellow players and staff to hold them back from reaching Manuel Mejuto González.
While Mallorca manager Gregorio Manzano will consider this result as two points lost, Juan Ramón López Muñiz will also believe that his team left two crucial points on the pitch. Fortunately for Málaga, Tenerife lost to Atlético Madrid 3-1, so Málaga’s point at the ONO Estadi moved them two points above the relegation zone, but Real Valladolid notched a vital win at El Molinón and defeated Sporting Gijón 0-2 to join Tenerife on thirty-two points, two points behind Málaga and Real Zaragoza from safety.
Málaga’s run-in includes two home games against Sporting and Real Madrid and two away games at Athletic Bilbao and Getafe, so Málaga will likely need other results to favor them because of their tough schedule. Whether or not Málaga stays in the top flight, Juan Ramón López Muñiz’s status as manager is in serious doubt at this moment. Fernando Sanz might look kindly on López Muñiz due to his history with the club, but these last four matches will be the true test of whether or not the players will truly fight for their boss and their La Liga lives. If they lay limp, Málaga will fall to Liga Adelante, and Juan Ramón López Muñiz’s second chance will end prematurely.
Fueras de Juego
- Xerez’s last call came at the Camp Nou, where they succumbed to FC Barcelona 3-1 on Saturday evening. Xerez stands seven points from safety with only twelve points for which to play. In the opening minutes of the second half, Xerez had three golden opportunities to equalize at 2-2 but could not capitalize, and when Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored Barça’s third in the 56th minute, Xerez began to realize that their foray in La Liga would only last one year. Xerez took out their frustrations on Barcelona, earning six yellow cards and two red cards over the final 23+ minutes, when the match devolved into a cheap shot affair.
- The late Sunday kickoff between Getafe and Sevilla provided all of the ingredients needed for a thrilling match: great individual play, crucial defensive mistakes, end-to-end play, and controversy. Dani Parejo scored the penalty in stoppage time to give Getafe the 4-3 lead and the three points, but referee Carlos Clos Gómez stood at the penalty spot and waited for Getafe’s celebrations to cease because he called for the penalty to be taken again. Two Getafe players encroached in the penalty area before Parejo took the penalty, and Clos Gómez made the correct call. Parejo, with the calm of a lazy day at the beach, took the ball from the referee a second time and coolly slotted it past Andrés Palop a second time to assure Getafe’s intentions for a European spot.
- The golazo of the week has to go to future Real Madrid and current Racing Santander talent Sergio Canales. Channeling his inner Maicon, he played keepy-uppy a few times inside the D before pirouetting and striking his volley so cleanly past Villarreal goalkeeper Diego López that Canales was in his celebrations before López realized what had just happened. Villarreal would come back to defeat Racing 1-2, but the brilliance showcased by Canales whenever he runs on the pitch is exactly why Real Madrid snapped him up at such a young age.
- Osasuna 0 – 0 Athletic Bilbao. This was not why the Monday night football match was reinstituted.