Champions League: Saviola and Isco get Malaga off to a flyer in Group C

AFP and AP, MALAGA, Spain

Thu, Sep 20, 2012 - Page 18

Aided by Argentina veteran Javier Saviola, Spain’s Malaga made a winning start to their maiden Champions League campaign on Tuesday, beating Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg 3-0 at La Rosaleda.

Malaga are a new force on the Spanish scene having qualified for the competition for the first time after coming fourth in La Liga, but they have been beset by financial difficulties in recent months and have lost several stars, such as Santiago Cazorla, who joined Arsenal.

However, on Tuesday, all of those recent tribulations were set aside as they raced into an early two-goal lead in their Group C encounter.

With just three minutes on the clock, local boy and Spain under-23 international Alarcon Isco strode into the area, before unleashing a curling right-footed effort into the corner of the net as Malaga made a rip-roaring start.

Former Barcelona star Saviola, who joined from Benfica in the summer at the age of 31, netted the second 10 minutes later, the Argentine wizard firing home after Jesus Gamez found him with a cross from the right.

In between the two goals, Zenit suffered a dose of misfortune when recent big-money signing Brazil international Hulk blasted a long-range shot against the crossbar after five minutes.

Malaga, coached by Manuel Pelegrini, had to reshuffle the pack with French midfielder Jeremy Toulalan missing with a thigh injury, while Zenit were without their new signing, Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel.

The Spanish nevertheless came into the game buoyed by good league form which has brought three wins and a draw for their best start to a top flight season, leaving them second behind Barcelona.

Two down at the break, Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit had little choice other than to go on the attack thereafter, but they spurned a fine chance to reduce the arrears in the first minute of the second period. Hulk’s striking partner Aleksandr Kerzhakov found himself clear inside the box, but snatched at his effort and sent it wide.

At the other end, Vyacheslav Malafeev had to be alert in the Russians’ goal to deny Eliseu, before Saviola gave way to Paraguayan veteran forward Roque Santa Cruz on the hour, the Argentine earning a warm ovation from the home crowd.

With 15 minutes remaining, Isco had a goal chalked off for offside by English referee Mark Clattenburg, but made amends with a rasping third as Malaga rounded things off in some style.

Hulk compounded his own miserable evening with a last-gasp booking for simulation as Zenit suffered a further blow to add to their weekend home reverse to Russian table-toppers Terek Grozny.

Elsewhere, Lucho Gonzales and Steven Defour scored late in each half as Porto secured their 150th European victory 2-0 against Dinamo Zagreb, who have lost seven straight in the Champions League.

Meanwhile, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Benedikt Hoewedes scored as Schalke 04 ended Olympiakos’ 10-year unbeaten run against German opponents on Greek soil in the Champions League with a 2-1 victory.

Djamel Abdoun leveled for Olympiakos in the 68th minute, before Germany striker Huntelaar equalized a minute later.