By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was a brutal blow. Malaga's Champions League bow brought wonderful wins over AC Milan, Anderlecht and Zenit in the first round; three victories and three draws which saw the the Costa del Sol club top Group C and advance unbeaten to the excitement and enthrallment of the knockout stages. But then came the bad news - a Uefa ban for financial irregularities meant they would be unable to return to European football in 2013-14.
The Andalusian club have announced they will fight the ruling of European football's governing body and are currently preparing paperwork which they will hand over to TAS (Sport's Arbitration Tribunal) in the hope they will prove their innocence.
But they could also face the threat of a second campaign being added to the sentence at any time over the following four years if outstanding debts are not paid off by the end of March. Despite the punishment, the club's CEO, Vicente Casado, believes the decision will be reversed. "We are disappointed by a decision that I consider to be unjust and which I feel to be mistaken. But worried, no, because we are calm and confident about our compliance," he explained last month.
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Behind the scenes, however, there is genuine concern as many senior club officials have been left in the dark by the tumultuous tenure of Qatari sheik Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani. He arrived amid bold claims of taking on Barcelona and Real Madrid, recruited coach Manuel Pellegrini and a number of exciting talents, including Santi Cazorla, Jeremy Toulalan and Isco, but left the club in limbo over the summer as debts piled up and key players were sold to balance the books.
Through it all, Pellegrini somehow steered the ship through stormy waters, both in La Liga and in the Champions League. The Chilean has rebuilt his reputation following a troublesome term at Madrid in 2009-10 and Isco has stepped up to fill Cazorla's sizeable shoes since the former Villarreal man moved to Arsenal in the summer. Now, however, Malaga risk losing them both.
Isco signed a new contract at the end of January and is happy at his hometown club. "It's all happened pretty fast but I'm still the young lad I have always been," he told Uefa in an interview published on Monday. At just 20 years of age, the attacking midfielder is enjoying his football in the town where he grew up, but if Malaga fail to overturn their European ban, the club will be forced to cash in on their star player, whose release clause of €35 million (£30m) remains comparatively low considering his talent and his age. Isco already has plenty of admirers.Pellegrini is another man in demand. The Chilean is highly rated throughout Spain and has also attracted interest from the Premier League, most recently Chelsea. Without European football, the sporting project at Malaga is unlikely to provide sufficient motivation, especially as the club would be forced to sell off their stars to stay afloat.
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And the owners may not even be around to clear up the mess, either. Self-sufficiency is the current plan, with costs cut to balance the books and pay off debts in order to keep in line with Uefa's Financial Fair Play regulations. Malaga will now look to stay on top of their payments and hope the recent sale of Nacho Monreal to Arsenal will be the last significant departure from a first-team squad still making waves at home and in Europe.
The panorama is quite different now, though, from the optimism and expectation of 2010. As they prepare to face Porto in the last 16 of the Champions League and lie fourth in La Liga, Malaga have come a long, long way since their takeover. But lose their appeal against the European ban and the dream of conquering the continent will be over before it has barely begun.