Malaga's hopes of returning to the big time via the automatic promotion spots received a major setback as Andalusian rivals Granada marched six points clear of their visitors after an incident-packed 1-0 victory at Los Cármenes on Saturday.
It was a dismal day on and off the field for Malaga who failed to adjust to the wet conditions and seemed to be literally caught cold in the opening exchanges.
The hosts were clearly in control from the outset and spurned two openings even before getting the go-ahead goal as early as the fifth minute. Right-back Iván was too slow to get out to Fede Vico who had moved into space on the left flank and had time to size up a delicious cross to the back post where Antonio Puertas had both the speed and the power to beat Federico Ricca to the header and give his side the lead.
The goal seemed to have a settling effect on both sides, with Granada contented with their lead and Malaga finally getting to grips with the occasion. As a result, much of the play became focused on the middle third of the park with defences on top. In fact, after the goal, neither side had a shot on target for the remainder of the first half.
The calm before the storm
This proved to be the calm before the storm, however, as everything changed after half time.
Malaga coach Juan Ramón Muñiz decided to shake up his attacking options with a double half-time switch, bringing on both Álex Mula and Yevhen Seleznov for the in effective Keidi Bare and Iván Alejo.
However, this new strategy was thrown up in the air just two minutes later when midfield anchorman Alfred N’Diaye received his second yellow card when his loose and high foot caught Fede on the thigh.
Puertas thought he had taken advantage of his side’s numerical superiority just moments later when a slide rule pass found him free on the left-hand side of the area to tuck past the exposed Munir. The linesman, however, came to Malaga’s rescue and ruled the goal offside.
Still chasing the game, Muñiz had few other options available than to move the recently-introduced Mula into an unfamiliar central role and to use his final change to bring in Cifu in a wing-back role to cover the entirety of the right flank.
This left the visitors exposed and Fede Vico, left in acres of space, was able to line up a stinging long-range strike which Munir was only able to gather on the second attempt with Puertas following in on the rebound.
In stark contrast to the first half, the game opened up completely. This suited Malaga who, playing a man down and without the weight of expectation, started to create more chances.
Seleznov, whose miserable run in front of goal continues, as well as Gustavo Blanco Leschuk and even Cifu had chances to level the game but the lack of conviction displayed in front of goal cost Malaga, who now face eight crucial games (they will receive all three points from their scheduled encounter with Reus) which will determine their promotion fate.
Despite popular opinion that defeat has cost them their shot at automatic promotion, Muñiz said following the game that “losing isn’t a disaster [for us]”.
“There are lots of points still to play for and we’re not going to throw in the towel,” he said. “This is a blow [losing to a direct rival] but we’ll keep working to eradicate the little errors which cost us the game.”