PREVIEW-Soccer-Malaga battling for European berth despite ban
MADRID, April 17
MADRID, April 17 (Reuters) - With seven games left in the season, Malaga's players have put the Qatar-owned La Liga club in a strong position to secure a lucrative place in Europe for next term even though they know their efforts could all be in vain.
Fifth-placed Malaga, who play at fellow European hopefuls Valencia, one place below them in sixth, on Saturday (2000 GMT), have earned a UEFA ban from continental competition from next season due to delays in payments to creditors.
They are appealing the sanction at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and are confident they will be allowed to take up their place in the Europa League, Europe's second-tier club competition, or the elite Champions League if they manage to overhaul fourth-placed Real Sociedad.
Their hearing at Lausanne, Switzerland-based CAS is on May 14 and a decision is expected sometime around the middle of June, a Malaga spokesman said on Thursday.
Malaga and Valencia both have 50 points from 31 matches, with Malaga ahead thanks to a superior goal difference, while Sociedad, who play at struggling Osasuna on Sunday (1700), are four clear in fourth on 54 points.
As well as off-field problems, the players, whose wages were delayed amid doubts over the commitment of owner Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, have had to cope with the bitter disappointment of this month's Champions League exit at Borussia Dortmund.
They were within touching distance of a place in the last four on their debut in the competition but conceded two goals in added time and the German side went through instead.
Malaga picked themselves up to snatch a last-gasp 1-0 win at home to Osasuna last weekend and midfielder Manuel Iturra believes they are in good shape for the end of the campaign.
"The entire team is at an excellent level, both physically and in football terms," he told a news conference on Wednesday.
"I hope that we can keep it up because this is the most important part of the season and will define what happens next year," added the Chilean.
Malaga have some tough games remaining, including trips to play leaders Barcelona and second-placed champions Real Madrid, but Iturra noted that Sociedad still have to play Real and Valencia at home.
"They have difficult games left as well against direct rivals so the fight for the fourth Champions League place is going to be a close one," he said.
"We'll take each game at a time knowing that the points available at our Rosaleda stadium must stay at home if we want to be in the mix for fourth."
In French coach Philippe Montanier's second term in charge, Sociedad have been the surprise of the season after a 21-game run with only one defeat - a 4-3 reverse at Real Madrid in January when captain Xabi Prieto scored a hat-trick.
They finished as La Liga runners up to Real Madrid in 2003 but since then have spent three seasons in the second division and slipped into financial administration.
They have successfully developed a team built around a majority of youth academy players and blended them with imports such as Mexico striker Carlos Vela.
"I don't think things could be going any better for us right now," defender Inigo Martinez said on Wednesday.
"You can see that we are in good shape and playing well and more than capable of beating any opponent and staying up there in the table," he added.
"Now is when we have to give everything, even more than we have been."
Barca, meanwhile, have a 13-point lead over champions Real at the top and victory in their next three matches, including Saturday's game at home to Levante (1800), will clinch a fourth La Liga title in five years.
They could get their hands on the trophy sooner if their arch rivals, who host seventh-placed Real Betis on Saturday (1600), slip up.
Real have long-since given up on their title defence and winning a 10th European crown is their overwhelming priority.
Jose Mourinho's side play the first leg of their Champions League semi-final at Dortmund on Wednesday, with Barca at Bayern Munich the previous day. The return legs are the following week. (Editing by John O'Brien)
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