The Cinderella story of the soccer season ended in a most heartbreaking fashion on Tuesday, as Spanish underdog Malaga was cruelly denied a place in the Champions League semifinals by an astonishing comeback from Borussia Dortmund.
Malaga, beset by financial crisis and in its first-ever season in Europe's top competition, was just seconds away from clinching an unexpected place in the last four when it led Dortmund 2-1 in the dying moments of the second leg of the home-and-home quarterfinal.
On the heels of a scoreless first leg in Malaga, nothing short of two Dortmund goals would have been enough to deny the underdogs, yet that was exactly what happened, with the Germans, who had hit the net just once in the previous 180 minutes of action between the teams, striking twice within the space of 60 seconds.
By the time Marco Reus and then Felipe Santana completed Dortmund's miracle recovery, regulation time had already expired and the additional four minutes allowed for injuries was already under way.
"You never give up in football," said Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp. "This is why you always keep your strength, keep your spirit."
As Dortmund's disbelieving players climbed into the stands at Signal Iduna Park to celebrate with their jubilant fans, Malaga's Martin Demichelis was in tears as he remonstrated with officials and insisted Santana's winning goal should have been disallowed for offside.
For Malaga, who had just seen what would undoubtedly have been the club's greatest moment in its history snatched away, it was almost too much to bear. The club's outstanding run to this stage of the competition came against all odds, with deep financial issues, caused by the waning interest of the Arabian investment group that initially plowed money into the squad only to puzzlingly back off over the past year, plaguing the organization.
Star players Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal had to be sold to raise desperately needed funds, and Malaga – even if it had won the Champions League – would have been banned from next year's event as punishment for its financial predicament.
Yet none of that seemed to matter as Joaquin gave them an early lead and then Eliseu appeared to have clinched a semifinal place by adding a second goal after Robert Lewandowski equalized for Dortmund.
European soccer's away-goals rule meant that a 2-2 draw would have been enough to see Malaga through, and even when Reus scored after 91 minutes there seemed to be little cause for panic.
Moments later though, a scramble in the penalty area saw the ball land at Santana's feet, and the Brazilian defender made no mistake in bundling it over the line.
For Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini, who returned to the camp a day before the game after traveling to Chile to attend his father's funeral, the shock was clear to see and at first he could only shake his head repeatedly when asked what had gone so drastically awry in the closing stages.
The Champions League is routinely dominated by the biggest and richest clubs on the continent, as evidenced by Real Madrid's qualification for the last four, where they will likely be joined by Barcelona and Bayern Munich on Wednesday.
Malaga's fairytale run provided a welcome respite to that predictability and the Spanish side was surely already dreaming of bigger things before disaster struck on Tuesday.
"I still can't believe it," said Demichelis. "I don't want to believe it. I want somebody to tell me it didn't really happen."
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