Júlio Baptista is back terrifying defenders and scoring goals — and Málaga are reaping the rewards
Once upon a time there was a Beast. As big as a double decker and twice as wide, square as Mr Strong, the Beast frightened the whole of La Liga, squashing defenders and stomping his way towards goal. When he wasn't trying to score, the Beast was smiley and kind but when he was , he was petrifying. Defenders bounced off him – when they could pluck up the courage to approach him at all. Mostly, they just ran away screaming. On the back of his Sevilla shirt, it said: "Julio Cesar Baptista". In a straight line. There was no need for curly letters. In fact, the Beast's shoulders were so broad it could have said: "Julio Cesar Baptista, 'the Beast', terror of La Liga." And still had room for his stats.
They were some stats too. Spain's top scorer in 2004, with 26, he scored 47 times in 79 games for Sevilla, despite being signed as a defensive midfielder. They just couldn't beat him. And so, in classic style, they bought him. The move cost Real Madrid €25m and cost him his magic. There were still great moments – a thumping winner at the Camp Nou, a comic-book overhead kick – but it just wasn't the same. The photo-shoots no longer fit – no more ripped shirts and fearsome growls – and he never hit double figures, still less the 20 he'd scored in 2003-2004. He tried Madrid, London and Rome but it was no good. The Beast had lost his roar.
Until now. Because now the Beast is back. And back with a bang. A bang, a crash and a wallop. Bludgeoning defences into submission and rescuing his team from relegation. When Roma sold him to Málaga for €2.5m in the winter transfer window, they thought they had offloaded a dud to a team that was going down. In fact, they had just awoken the Beast. In his first game, he stood at one end of the pitch and watched helplessly as, at the other, Barcelona hammered them 4-1. In his second, he scored a beauty but watched helplessly as the referee played the pantomime baddie in a surreal, and brilliant, 4-3 defeat against Valencia. In his third, there was a 0-0 draw against the team that made him. And in his fourth, he scored his team's first as they came back from two down to get a 2-2 draw against Getafe – although Málaga remained bottom.
Then, in February, Baptista got injured and in his absence Málaga slipped further from safety. Almería drifted past towards the bottom but survival looked a long way off. They were hammered 7-0 by Real Madrid and said they were saving themselves for Osasuna three days later – only to go and lose to Osasuna too. They were back on the bottom, two points behind Almería, three from Hércules and four from salvation. Beaten by Levante, held 0-0 by Deportivo, by the time Baptista was back, they were still in the relegation zone. Málaga were going down.
Not any more. Most giggled when, on 4 January, Baptista promised eight to 10 goals. They shouldn't have. Baptista returned and scored twice against Mallorca. He got the opener against Racing Santander. He scored the first and third against Hercules. And on Saturday, he headed in the second against Atlético Madrid. He then made the third. He had done it again. Four games, four victories, 12 points from 12, and up six places to 13th. Out of the relegation zone and within touching distance of survival. Thanks to six goals in four matches, eight in nine since joining the club. Baptista has eight goals in 827 minutes – a record that only Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi can better.
When the final whistle went on Saturday night, Baptista stood and applauded the Málaga fans. They applauded back. The chant went up. "¡El Málaga es de primera!" — Málaga are a first division team. Half an hour later, they were still waiting, chanting for the team to come and salute them. As they headed to the team coach, they did so, exiting the stadium down the tunnel and through the car park at the north end of the ground. When Baptista reached the coach, pausing for a photo with an Atléti fan in a wheelchair, the roar was huge. As he boarded, two coach-loads of Málaga fans eased past, supporters banging on the windows and cheering.
In a soft high, almost squeaky voice, Baptista notes the difficulties inherent in playing for a club that has undergone so much change. But, he says, "we have a brilliant coach – and the club stuck by him." Grey suit bursting at the seams, fuzzy-felt Málaga badge ironed to the chest, he is keen to insist that it's not just about him. And it's not. Rondón, too, has been exceptional. Willy Caballero rescued them in the dying minutes on Saturday – and it is hard to resist a childish giggle at a load of fans bowing down and chanting, like a mantra, "Willy! Willy! Willy!"And Duda's delivery is wonderful. Without Baptista, they did defeat Espanyol, Real Sociedad and Almería. And while Baptista has eight this season, Rondón has 12.
But his appearance has been the key. With Baptista in the side, Málaga have the league's best record over the last four matches. He has been the catalyst: powerful in the air and fast across the ground, impossible to knock off the ball, offering an outlet and, alongside Rondón, providing a dynamism and momentum that opposition teams can't counteract. "It's not just about one player," grinned Enzo Maresca, as the cheers echoed outside, "but when that player is Julio, well ..." "It's not any old player who plays for Arsenal, Madrid and Roma," Manuel Pellegrini said afterwards. "Baptista has given us goals, personality, talent, and presence."
For a while he looked like any old player. Not so now. Brought to Málaga by the same sporting director who took him to Sevilla, the approach is made for him. As Baptista says, he is playing the way he did at the Pizjuán: closer to goal, more direct, the ball delivered into him quicker. Pellegrini's Málaga could hardly be more different to Pellegrini's Villarreal: they are playing with width, aggression and pace, delivering early crosses and keen to counter, both full-backs pushing on – Gamez on the right and Eliseu, a winger, on the left.
Saturday's win over Atlético was the classic case: Rondón headed the first, Baptista the second and the third was a quick, bulldozing counter-attacking run through the middle from Baptista, with Maresca following up the rebound. Málaga were, said Sport, "a cyclone". AS called them the "perfect storm," imagining the front two in leotards and running up a down escalator, calling them Rondón "Lightning" and Baptista "Thunder".
For Málaga, there was just one problem. Just like last week and just like the week before – and the week before that – they were not alone in winning. Málaga have 42 points, enough to guarantee survival in 18 of the last 20 league seasons (and in one of those, 2008-09, Getafe survived with 42, while Betis went down with the same total). Defeat for Osasunaon Sunday would have made them mathematically safe. But Osasuna won, coming back to defeat Zaragoza in a huge match – the match, in fact, that Aguirre was talking up as the one that really mattered even as his side defeated Real Madrid. Just as Racing and Getafe won.
Just as everyone who didn't have many points has started getting points and everyone who had plenty of them has stopped getting points: even four wins in a row might not be enough for Malaga, who still need another win; Real Sociedad and Zaragoza beat Barcelona and Madrid respectively last weekend and aren't safe; Getafe were seventh only 10 weeks ago and are in trouble, two points off the relegation zone; Osasuna won three on the trot and have won their last two but are only two points clear. Levante and Sporting pulled themselves out of trouble with astonishing runs but even they could conceivably find themselves back in it.
Deportivo most definitely are. Sporting's penalty in the fifth minute of injury time has put them in the relegation zone for the first time in 24 weeks. It was the second penalty of the match, after the first had been given for a handball by Laure, which clearly came off his back – a decision so bad even Juan Carlos Valerón got angry. "I had better check the rules: I didn't know a back was a penalty," moaned Deportivo coach Miguel-Ángel Lotina. "We were safe and now we've got a dressing room full of footballers crying."
• Marca and AS have splashed their covers with triumphant news this morning. A cheering Cristiano Ronaldo, punching the air. Ronaldo, you see, scored four goals against Sevilla in Saturday night's (that's Saturday night's) 6-2 thrashing at the Sánchez Pizjuán. On Sunday Messi didn't score any in Barcelona's 2-0 win against Espanyol at the Camp Nou. Which means that Ronaldo has a two-goal (or three-goal, depending on who you believe) lead over the Argentinian in the trophy that really, really matters. In other news: Barcelona, who won the city derby, now need only one point in their final three games to guarantee the title.
• The LFP have long been obsessed that one of the reasons why they are not as successful internationally as the Premier League is because the timetables do not fit with Asian TV audiences (or, you might add, anyone in Spain who actually wants to go to a game and get home again before one in the morning). So, this weekend, they moved Mallorca-Villarreal forward to midday Spanish time to make it prime time out east. How did it go? Well, see if you can guess which was the only game this weekend to finish 0-0.
• Gio Dos Santos: a rival for Baptista in the signing of the winter award? He scored twice to beat Hércules, taking his total to five and Racing to 12th and 43 points, on the verge of safety. But not quite there yet.
• All should be much clearer by this time next week: there are games on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as the weekend. But the relegation battle looks like going to the wire. Except of course for (probably) Hercules and (definitely) Almería. They're heading back to the second division – and by bus too. Eight hours back from Getafe on Saturday night for them. "Second Division team, Second Division transport". And, yes, that really is what their players were told.
Results: Getafe 2–0 Almería, Valencia 3–0 Real Sociedad, Athletic 3–2 Levante, Sporting 2–2 Deportivo, Hércules 2–3 Racing, Atlético 0–3 Málaga, Sevilla 2–6 Real Madrid, Mallorca 0–0 Villarreal, Barcelona 2–0 Espanyol, Zaragoza 1–3 Osasuna