It won't be easy for Manuel Pellegrini's men because, according to WhoScored, Real Madrid are currently undefeated in their last 24 matches against Malaga in all competitions--a truly eye-popping stat.
But this year's model Malaga, rife with financial problems and minus the amazing, talismanic Santi Carzorla, have been defying expectations all season long. Malaga breezed into the knockout stages of the Champions League, drawing competition stalwarts, Porto, and they currently sit comfortably in fourth place in the Primera as they seek to secure passage into next year Champions League tournament, provided they are successful in appealing the UEFA sanctions against their participation.
Pellegrini is unquestionably doing some of his finest work, which is perhaps why he (at least publicly) is refusing to indulge any media talk of revenge on Los Blancos ahead of what is also an extremely important match for his side. It actually seems, if you read the press statements a certain way, that Malaga are not only projecting--but enjoying --a slight psychological edge heading into this contest.
Malaga registered a 2-0 victory away to Sevilla in their last league fixture, their first result away from La Rosaleda in La Liga since September. Malaga can attack down either flank and are extremely effective at creating goalscoring chances from set-pieces. Madrid's ability to defend set-pieces and contend with Malaga's fluidity and width will be made much more difficult with Fabio Coentrao's absence due to a muscle problem. The timing couldn't be worse as the Portuguese international has enjoyed fine form over the past few weeks, with possibly his best performance in a white shirt coming against Atletico in the Madrid derby.
Reports indicate that Jose Mourinho may be forced to include Nacho and Ricardo Carvalho in the lineup to compensate for the ongoing rash of injuries. Mourinho will be tasked with fashioning yet another functional backline combination on the fly against quality opponents. Carvalho's experience and ability to read the game will definitely be an asset if he is selected.
The absences of Coentrao, Marcelo and Raul Albiol are crucial because, as Lucas noted, Isco is the lynchpin of Malaga's attack, but Malaga's true strength lies within the cohesive interplay between their entire front-four of: Isco, Javier Saviola, Joaquin and Portillo. Michael Cox gives a typically brilliant analysis of how this interplay works at its best in his match report of Malaga's 4-0 victory over Valencia last month. When worked well this mode of attack is very successful, particularly against a team starting defensive players who are inexperienced, rusty and/or playing out of their natural position. Sami Khedira's instincts and physicality could prove decisive in this battle.
Malaga will be without defensive midfielder, Jeremy Toulalan, a huge absence that Real Madrid will surely look to exploit. Mesut Ozil, in particular, should be able to utilize the space in between midfield and defense to create opportunities without Toulalan's disruptive presence. Angel di Maria is expected to be selected after his impressive second half against Espanyol and both di Maria and Ozil will be looking to provide service to Karim Benzema, as the French striker returns from injury.
This should be a fascinating battle between two quality sides. Can Madrid get a much needed result?