MADRID Malaga have plenty of reasons to be bullish about their Champions League prospects after the financially troubled La Liga side overcame a turbulent summer to finish unbeaten at the top of Group C on their debut in the competition.
Despite losing several of his best players in the close season and delays in wage payments to those left behind, coach Manuel Pellegrini led the Qatar-owned club to three wins in their opening three games, including a memorable 1-0 success at home to seven-times winners AC Milan.
They went on to claim a 1-1 draw at Milan that sent them through to the last 16 with two games to spare, conceded late at Zenit St Petersburg in a 2-2 draw that sealed top spot last month and were denied a win late on at home to Anderlecht in another 2-2 draw in their final match on Tuesday despite fielding a weakened team.
They ended the group phase on 12 points from six matches, four ahead of Milan, and will find out who they will play in the first knockout round when the draw is made on December 20.
"I am completely indifferent," Pellegrini told a news conference after Tuesday's game at the Rosaleda when asked about possible opponents.
"There are no easy teams, they are the 16 best sides in Europe," added the Chilean.
"The important thing is that we get to February playing at a good level and with the ambition of getting to the quarter-finals and with the conviction we can get through."
Tuesday's game was soured by an injury to Malaga's French midfielder Jeremy Toulalan, who pulled up with what looked like a hamstring strain after 15 minutes and had to be replaced by Ignacio Camacho.
It was unclear how long Toulalan would be out of action but the solidity he brings to central midfield will be sorely missed as Malaga try to reverse a dip in form in La Liga and advance in the King's Cup.
However, Pellegrini will soon have another attacking weapon in his arsenal when Brazilian forward Julio Baptista makes his return from a long-term injury, expected sometime this month.
Malaga have one of the meanest defences in Europe but have lacked firepower up front, with Javier Saviola and Roque Santa Cruz failing to find the net consistently.
With a fit Baptista back in the side and playmaker Isco and winger Joaquin providing creativity the Andalusians have the potential to challenge any side they may face in the last 16.
Importantly, given the state of their finances, Malaga's impressive performance in Europe's elite club competition should give a timely boost to their coffers.
The club still faces punishment from UEFA for overdue payments to creditors that could see some of their prize money withheld.
But if they manage to sort out their accounts, they will be entitled to receive win and draw bonuses worth 4.5 million euros ($5.9 million) on top of the base fee of 8.6 million for playing in the group phase and another 3.5 million for making it through to the last 16.
Beyond that, each quarter-finalist gets 3.9 million euros, the semi-finalists 4.9 million, the winners 10.5 million and the runners-up 6.5 million.
(Reporting by Iain Rogers)