Project Malaga faces sternest of tests at Real

Malaga's splurge of more than 100 million euros of Qatari cash finally appears to be paying off but their grip on fourth and a Champions League qualification spot faces the sternest of tests at leaders Real Madrid on Sunday.

Led by former Real coach Manuel Pellegrini and owned by a member of the Gulf state's royal family, the Andalusian club splashed out 20 million euros for Spain playmaker Santi Cazorla alone in the close season.

Others including former Manchester United and Real striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, France midfielder Jeremy Toulalan and former Spain winger Joaquin have also joined the project and will be fired up for their team's bid to achieve what no team apart from Barcelona has managed this season: beat Real at their imposing Bernabeu arena.

Shown the door to make way for Jose Mourinho at the end of the 2009/10 season, Pellegrini can take heart from his team's performance against Real in a King's Cup last-16 first leg in January, when they opened a shock 2-0 lead before losing 3-2 and going down 1-0 in the return leg.

Full-back Jesus Gamez is hoping some of the Real players will be weary after their exertions in Wednesday's 4-1 Champions League victory at home to CSKA Moscow, which put them through to the quarter-finals 5-2 on aggregate.

"Madrid have a great squad, although hopefully some of those who played [against CSKA] will play again and that could help us," Gamez told a news conference on Wednesday.

"The way the coach has us playing, the team is on its best form right now and the win at Getafe [on March 3] and three straight victories overall helps you work better and go out feeling less pressure," he added.

"Madrid have players who can hold on to the ball but their biggest strength is their attacking ability and speed.

"We can try to keep the ball, we have our way of playing and it seems to be paying off."

CONGESTED TABLE

Real, who have won 11 league matches in a row since their reverse to Barca in December, have a 10-point lead over their great rivals with 12 games left and are closing in on a first league title since 2008.

As they prepare for their game at erratic Sevilla on Saturday, Barca are still waiting for coach Pep Guardiola to announce whether he is staying on beyond the end of the campaign, when his current contract expires.

Argentina international Javier Mascherano, whom Guardiola has converted from a midfielder into an extremely effective central defender, joined his team mates and club officials in urging the former Barca and Spain player to stay on Wednesday.

"What club is ready for the most successful coach in history to go? Nobody is ready," Mascherano told a news conference.

"We hope he will continue," added the former Liverpool man. "The president, the board, the fans and the players - we all want him to stay."

Third-placed Valencia, trailing Barca by 16 points and leading Malaga by four, play at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, with coach Unai Emery under pressure to add more consistency.

In a congested middle section of the table, there are only 10 points separating Malaga from Betis in 14th, with Levante, Osasuna, Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Espanyol, Rayo Vallecano, Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Real Mallorca in between.

Malaga have 40 points, Levante and Osasuna have 38, Bilbao are on 37, Atletico and Espanyol 36, Rayo 34 and Real Sociedad and Sevilla 33.

Bottom side Real Zaragoza, six points adrift of 19th-placed Sporting Gijon, desperately need a win at home to Osasuna on Saturday if they are to have any hope of avoiding the drop.


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