Given the relative struggles at Manchester City and the prospect of the club finishing the season empty-handed, the sight of Roque Santa Cruz – still on the books at the Etihad Stadium – netting the winner on loan at Malaga in the Champions League last week will have only added to the frustrations. After Roberto Mancini’s men drew a blank at Goodison Park recently and flopped in Europe earlier in the campaign, might the experience of Santa Cruz have added another dimension?
It is hard to say that Manchester City have missed the Paraguayan striker too much, despite their faltering results over the past few months. After all, they lifted the FA Cup in 2011 and then captured the Premier League title a year later. But Santa Cruz clearly has plenty left in the tank and has rebounded well in La Liga, bringing the know-how gained from playing in leagues across Europe, including a key spell with Bayern Munich.
Malaga, of course, have been a feel-good story for the past two years, surging up La Liga and transferring that form into Champions League action under boss Manuel Pellegrini. A quarter-final tie with Borussia Dortmund, one of the clubs that ousted Manchester City from the group stage, now beckons.
Santa Cruz moved to Spain in 2011 when the Citizens agreed a loan move with Real Betis. The Paraguayan had briefly returned to former club Blackburn Rovers at the end of the 2010/11 campaign before leaving English football behind. The 31-year-old tallied seven league goals for Betis that year, but had to adjust to another new environment as Mancini’s men finalised another loan deal, this time with Malaga. Santa Cruz has spent more time packing his bags than he would probably have liked, but he remains a man in demand.
And he has assured himself of a place in the hearts of Malaga fans with his heroics at La Rosaleda, proving that his up-and-down spell at Manchester City did little to dent his confidence. Even before his crucial goal sent the club into the last eight of the Champions League at the expense of FC Porto, Santa Cruz had made his mark with two goals off the bench in a win over Real Madrid. His experience, aerial prowess and predatory instincts in the box have helped Malaga overcome the loss of Santi Cazorla last summer and Nacho Monreal in January, both snapped up by Arsenal. But that decisive goal against Porto is the standout highlight of his time in Andalusia.
"This is amazing", Santa Cruz exclaimed. "We were dreaming about a win like this right from the time we lost in Porto. We thought it would be hard and it was, but now all our work has paid off. It’s a fantastic achievement for Malaga and whatever happens in the next round it’s already something magnificent for the club. We are living a dream."
Malaga’s fine run is all the more remarkable given the financial difficulties facing the club. "It has been an unusual year", explained Pellegrini, who has been mooted to be a strong contender to replace Rafael Benitez in the Chelsea hot seat, or even, ironically, Mancini at the Etihad Stadium. "The team deserves a lot of credit for what they have done both in the domestic league and the Champions League.
"They maintained their focus on the sporting side and had the capacity to get to grips with all the other problems. Then there was a positive atmosphere coming from a desire to help the club and the players deserve huge praise for that."
Santa Cruz’s future beyond this season is up in the air. He has become an integral part of the Malaga squad and looks to be back to his best. But the ball is ultimately in Manchester City’s court. Mancini himself faces question marks over whether he will still be steering the ship at the Etihad Stadium but, if the Citizens have been monitoring Santa Cruz, they may yet find a role for him. Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko have all had their magic moments this season, but the Paraguayan’s skill set would make any squad stronger.
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