MALAGA, Spain (Reuters) - Plagued by off-field woes including an enigmatic Qatari owner and a UEFA ban from future European competition, Malaga may have a fearsome weapon back in their arsenal for a tilt at this season’s Champions League.
Brazilian forward Julio Baptista, nicknamed “The Beast” for his muscular physique and aggressive playing style, finally made his comeback as a late substitute in Sunday’s 1-1 La Liga draw at home to Real Zaragoza.
The 31-year-old had been out for more than a year with a broken bone in his foot and a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Malaga have a miserly defence but struggle at times in front of goal and Baptista’s return may be just the tonic the Andalusian club need with a trip to Porto for the first leg of their last 16 tie in Europe’s elite club competition on February 19.
“The truth is that after a very long time I can say again that I am feeling good,” Baptista, who joined Malaga from AS Roma in January 2011 and also had stints at Real Madrid and Arsenal, said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday.
“I can bring my experience, my way of playing, practically nothing has changed,” added the Brazilian.
”I think also there is a certain respect among our opponents because of the way I play and who I am and I think that will help too.
“My great goal is to get back to being the player I was when I was injured and to show that I am still around.”
Malaga have outperformed on their Champions League debut despite a turbulent summer, when reports owner Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, a member of the Qatar royal family, was looking to sell up after only two years went unanswered.
Several top players, including Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla, were sold and the future appeared bleak.
The cashflow problems resulted in delays in payments to players and creditors and UEFA last month slapped them with a ban from European competition to take effect the next time they qualify in the next four years.
Malaga have appealed the punishment at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
A measure of stability appears to have returned in recent months, not least due to the success on the pitch under cerebral Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini.
Baptista, who said almost all outstanding wages had been paid, feels that part of the secret was the players and coaching staff had managed to isolate themselves from the club’s institutional difficulties.
“We closed ourselves off from all the non-football issues and that has been the key,” he said, before paying tribute to Pellegrini, a former Real coach known as “the engineer”.
”Wherever he has coached he has managed to create very strong groups, not just of football players but of people as well, which is also very important.
“From my point of view the club is a little bit more stable than four or five months ago. Nobody ever thought Malaga would be among the 16 best teams in the Champions League.”
Sitting in the stands of the athletics stadium where Malaga train, Baptista picked 2011 winners Barcelona and last year’s runners-up Bayern Munich as his two favourites for Champions League glory this season.
Clad in dark glasses against the glare of the sun and a brown leather jacket and jeans, he went on to analyse the tie against Porto, who visit Malaga for the return leg on March 13.
“You can barely afford any errors at this stage of the competition,” said Baptista.
”You have to play a complete, a perfect tie, playing each leg intelligently. Knowing that it’s not over after 90 minutes you have to be very shrewd and very calm.
“It’s very important to score away from home which gives you the calm to play the return at home and hopefully get through.”
Asked about his future goals, Baptista, who is married to a Spaniard and has an infant daughter, said his immediate priority was to rediscover his form and scoring touch.
Beyond that, he is hoping to win a place back in the Brazil team and add to the two Copa America crowns he helped win for the South Americans in 2004 and 2007.
Baptista last played for his country under coach Dunga at the 2010 World Cup in a 0-0 draw with Portugal.
“It will depend on my form, how I am playing,” Baptista said, adding that he was not currently in touch with new Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
“We all know, myself included, that you have to be at a very high level to get called up.” (Editing by Tom Pilcher)