Real Madrid must neutralise 'Michel effect' to take La Liga crown in Malaga
Real Madrid's final La Liga match of the season at Malaga has monopolised covers and airtime in the Spanish media the past couple of days. In addition to a shot at the title for manager Zinedine Zidane's team, the encounter offers plenty of angles for analysis and mere speculation.
Take, for instance, the past of Malaga coach Michel Gonzalez as an extraordinary Madrid player in the 1980s and '90s. Then there's the fact that Malaga stand to make a €1 million profit if Madrid win the league. There's also the recent fight between Malaga's president and Barcelona.
Indeed, Michel was one of the stars of the famous Quinta del Buitre, The Vulture Squad, which dominated La Liga in the second half of the 1980s. Hired by Malaga well past midseason, he has rejuvenated a team that looked demoralised and exhausted, earning a few big wins in the process, including 2-0 against Barcelona and 4-2 over Andalusian rivals Sevilla. With six victories and three draws in 11 games, two months of Michel have taken Malaga from openly flirting with the relegation zone to sitting comfortably midtable.
Having given Madrid a huge hand with that victory over Barcelona, some suspect Michel isn't too keen on beating his old club Sunday. While the manager has been crystal clear on the matter, every Spanish media outlet with a sports section has planted seeds of doubt regarding his motives.
Not only Michel's, but also Malaga's fair-play intentions have been questioned, especially by the Barcelona media. The fact that Malaga would get a €1m bonus from Madrid if they win La Liga as a result of Isco's transfer four seasons ago obviously puts a shade of doubt regarding the real incentive for the club. However, that analysis leaves out that Malaga would lose a similar amount of cash in TV rights if they finish the La Liga season in 12th place instead of 11th, which could happen if they fail to win Sunday; they are currently level on points with 12th-place Valencia.
While these topics are rehashed until exhaustion, no one talks about Eibar. The Basque team play at Barcelona in their last match of the season, kicking off at the same time as Malaga against Real Madrid. In a position similar to that of Malaga, eighth in the standings with nothing to play for, Eibar manager Jose Luis Mendilibar has publicly said: "The Barcelona match is important, but our season is pretty much over." That, coming from Michel, would have caused a commotion on social networks. Apparently, Malaga must perform professionally until the last second of the season, but Eibar can treat their match against Barcelona as their first summer warm-up.
Controversies aside, Real Madrid vs. Malaga has everything to be a great matchup. Since Michel took over, the home side look as gifted and perhaps even more intense than the one Manuel Pellegrini coached to the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2013. Free of pressure, their hardworking midfield, led by Ignacio Camacho, can make life difficult from Toni Kroos & Co., while former Barcelona forward Sandro Ramirez, coveted by several Premier League teams, wants to close his remarkable season doing his old team a favour: "Hopefully I can score and hand the title to Barcelona," he said Friday.
For Zidane's team, this is a final, and therefore there won't be any rotations. Daniel Carvajal, Pepe and Gareth Bale are out injured, and James Rodriguez is still in doubtful condition. It would make sense for Zidane to take the full squad to Malaga.
Fuelled by the bench, Madrid have performed well away from the Santiago Bernabeu this season. Averaging a stunning 3.1 goals per game after 18 matches, the contributions of subs such as Alvaro Morata, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have been key for the team to keep a high tempo and intensity that's impossible to bear for most rivals. Their stamina and class should be enough for a regular game. This, however, is a final, and when you've lived through two consecutive La Liga crowns lost in Tenerife in the last match of the season, no positive stats can make you feel optimistic.
The importance of this match for Madrid can't be overstated. With 32 titles, Los Blancos are the biggest winners in the history of La Liga, but two league trophies in the past nine seasons tell a story of recent underachievement.
Another unsuccessful run would become a huge disappointment, but Zidane & Co. seem to have reached this final stage of the tournament in great condition. Now they must finish their job by neutralising the "Michel effect" in Malaga. It won't be easy.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.