By Sam Lee
It’s been a great week for the nation of Chile. The people of the lanky South American country (and that little bit of Antarctica they claim is theirs) have bound together after the rescue of the trapped miners and have enjoyed a week in the World’s news spotlight.
As the unlucky 33’s ordeal went on, hope and belief grew throughout the land that a happy conclusion would be reached and, sure enough, this week all of those men were reunited with their families (and some other women, too).
In one small corner of Santiago, a hope and belief of a different kind was growing inside former Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini a long time before the recovery mission was thought possible.
The Chilean, who was ousted at the end of last season for the sole reason that he wasn’t Jose Mourinho, would have been an interested spectator as Madrid’s season got off to a stuttering start, as the team he coached to a record points tally struggled to hit the back of the net and failed to find a rhythm under his much-feted successor.
Of particular interest to the 57-year-old would have been the early-season criticism of Mourinho from the ever-reactionary sports dailies Marca and AS, not to mention the whistles and jeers from the Madridistas in the stands.
But, just as one faltering institution is forced into a rethink about how it goes about its business after a much-publicised setback, Madrid, too, are in the process of turning the proverbial corner.
The pre-International break demolition of a poor Deportivo la Coruna side papered over a few cracks around the Santiago Bernabeu, while this weekend Mourinho’s men travel to the Rosaleda to face the unpredictable Malaga with the chance to close in on la Liga’s top spot.
The momentum of that 6-1 win over ‘super Depor’ (they might need to have a re-think over that nickname if they carry on like this) clearly stayed with the Madrid forwards throughout the international fixtures. Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema grabbed a goal each for Germany and France respectively, while Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice for Portugal, including his first goal from a free kick for his national team in five years.
Any combination of that attacking talent should be more than enough to overcome Jesualdo Ferreira’s Malaga, a team without a win at home this season and the side who have have been beaten on their own turf more times by Real Madrid than any other side in Spanish football history.
Any victory at the Rosaleda will have to be garnered without the help of Sergio Ramos, who picked up an injury to his right knee during Spain’s hard-fought victory over Scotland in midweek, and Pedro Leon who, well, who cares? He’s not Maradona or Zidane is he, Jose?
The match will kick off just as the final whistle is blown at the Nou Camp, where Barcelona, who are in some bother themselves, lock horns with leaders Valencia in as juicy a game as you could wish for at the moment.
The tie certainly comes at the perfect time for Madrid; a meeting between two title rivals always offers up the chance to size up the competition from a safe distance, while any points dropped by their Catalan rivals should see an early-season points gap open up.
For all the talk of Madrid’s woes so far this season, Barcelona’s troubles have not gone unnoticed.
New signing Javier Mascherano is taking some time to become accustomed to the high-tempo rhythm of his team-mates, which is proving to be something of a problem in the absence of a tendinitis-ridden Xavi, while Lionel Messi and David Villa have had their own problems. As a result, possession is not being converted into goals as easily as it has been in the past.
After the defeat to Hercules and the draw with Mallorca, another home slip-up would see the champions well off the pace and could hand an early advantage to Madrid, and certainly one to Valencia.
Whatever the result, news filtering through to the players and coaching staff (not the club doctor, he’s still banned) will only serve as more inspiration to get the right result, such is the desire around the Bernabeu to win a 32nd league title and trump their old rivals.
The last time Malaga and Madrid met was the final day of the 2009/10 season, the last game of Pellegrini’s tenure in the Spanish capital. That match finished 1-1 as the Chilean manager’s title challenge finally fizzled out. This weekend, the man who stepped into his shoes has the perfect opportunity to mount a sustained tilt at the championship after a beleaguered start. Funny how things turn out.