BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Malaga is banking on its big-money offseason overhaul to finally lift it out of the bottom half of the Spanish league and into the European limelight.
Malaga owner Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani spent ?60 million ($85 million) on new players in a bid to put the club into a position where it can challenge teams like Valencia, Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, instead of trying to stave off relegation.
The Qatari sheikh, who bought the bankrupt club for ?36 million ($51 million) in 2009, has brought in 10 reinforcements, including Netherlands striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, France midfielder Jeremy Toulalan and Spain international Santi Cazorla, to make Malaga the busiest team in the transfer window.
It also hired former Spain international Fernando Hierro as general manager to help oversee the spending spree and make sure it turns into a long-term project.
The heights of Malaga's aspirations will be tested Saturday when it hosts three-time defending champion Barcelona at the La Rosaleda stadium.
''We are very excited for the game against Barca,'' Malaga captain Apono Galdeano said. ''If we do things well we can earn (the win).''
A debut victory will largely hinge on second-season coach Manuel Pellegrini's ability to quickly forge a unit almost evenly divided between newcomers and holdovers.
So far, he's happy with his progress.
''Despite having new players the team has come together quickly around our game plan,'' Pellegrini said. ''We have a serious team that can play Sunday after Sunday, win games and try for the results everyone is expecting.''
What people are expecting is for Malaga to be playing in Europe next season. But caution also exists after Malaga characteristically flirted with disaster before finishing three points above the drop in 11th place last season.
Argentine forward Diego Buonanotte gets a fresh start after leaving River Plate, while winger Joaquin Sanchez and 19-year-old Isco Alarcon were poached from Valencia to bolster an attack that already counts on Brazil striker Julio Baptista and Venezuela striker Jose Rondon, who led Malaga with 14 goals last season.
While the 35-year-old Van Nistelrooy can not be expected to repeat his league-best 25 goals with Real Madrid in 2006-07, the Dutchman's arrival has marked a turning point.
''Seeing that great players sign here is what attracts a player. Van Nistelrooy is a great player and I hope to learn a lot from him,'' said Cazorla, the club's most expensive acquisition at a reported ?21 million ($30 million). ''Europe as a goal? It's mine, the club's, the team's, everyone's. The goal is to fight to enter into Europe next season.''
Cazorla, who was coached by Pellegrini for four seasons at Villarreal, is expected to lead the attack.
''There is a lot of excitement behind this project,'' Cazorla said. ''(Pellegrini) knows me well and he clearly influenced my (decision to sign here).''
Pellegrini will have few excuses this season after stepping in for Jesualdo Ferreira in October. The team failed to respond and the former Real Madrid coach offered his resignation twice before a late surge took the team to safety.
The club gave him a two-year contract extension in July, but he can ill afford a sub-par start to the season.
''Balance is important. The team has resources in attack and important players that can decide any given game,'' the Chilean coach said. ''To that we can add, and this is what I'm most pleased with, a more staunch defense.''
Malaga's defense allowed 68 goals, second worst in the league. Spain international Ignacio Monreal, Netherlands fullback Joris Mathijsen, former Sevilla defender Sergio Sanchez and Martin Demichelis are expected to change that.
Van Nistelrooy, meanwhile, wants to curb expectations.
''It's a radical change. It's a new team and we are working to complete the squad and get to know one another,'' said Van Nistelrooy, who joined from Hamburg. ''We have to be realistic. We are beginning a project with a lot of excitement, but we cannot lose touch with reality.''
With Barcelona and Real Madrid firm favorites for the league, a European spot could be the only reality.