On paper, Friday night’s game was arguably the toughest of Sheffield United’s pre-season campaign.
Spanish opposition, played in searing heat, and an opposition manager with a penchant for formations more difficult to fathom than the route to this stadium in Coin.
In practice, Chris Wilder’s team found the going much easier than expected.
Yes, Malaga caused the problems you would expect of a club which reached the Champions League quarter-finals only four years ago.
Yes, there was a point in this contest when it appeared they were destined to seize full control.
United, though, have made a habit of defying conventional wisdom since Wilder took charge.
They showed plenty of fight but, as John Fleck demonstrated by scoring what proved a memorable match-winning goal, possessed lots of finesse too.
The fact Malaga’s preparations for the new season are still at the embryonic stage undoubtedly had some bearing on the outcome. But United, who return to England later this evening, will still take plenty of heart from beating a team even Wilder acknowledged beforehand represented a “huge step-up in class.”
“People might say you don’t win or lose anything in pre-season,” he said.
“But people also talk about the technicality of Spanish football.
“Well, I think we showed we’ve got some good technical players too.”
Malaga FC finished 11th in La Liga last season but provided a glimpse of their quality by beating Barcelona three months ago.
Pablo, capped once by Spain since progressing through the Andalusians’ youth system, went about his business with precision and poise while Chori, whose tackling angered United’s bench on several occasions, adopted a more brutish approach.
United, though, boast plenty of talent too.
Fleck, whose performances were a driving force behind their march to the League One title last term, was his usual tenacious self in midfield and capped an impressive individual display with a superb first-half goal.
Billy Sharp was busy but, for once, failed to find the back of the net while Ched Evans’ return to action as a late substitute was well-received by the strong travelling support.
Jack O’Connell was also commanding against a side he used to watch as a kid but Fleck was the pick of the bunch.
“People who don’t know how we work might think coming over here was all about living it up and being on the lash,” Wilder said.
“Well, if they do, then they don’t know this team do they?
“There are certain qualities you have to buy into here, no matter what the situation, and the lads have shown this week they do.”
Michel’s players passed the ball with the confidence you would expect of a team coached by a Real Madrid legend.
Their positioning forced United to think as well as fight but, until Simon Moore was twice sent scrambling across his line by long-range shots, it was Billy Sharp who came closest to breaking the deadlock after combining with Leon Clarke.
Moore produced a fine save to deny Borja midway through the opening period as Malaga threatened to take charge.
With the partnership between Pablo and Deco causing United a headache, combined with Borja’s determination to park himself on the United defence’s toes, wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Daniel Lafferty appeared the visitors’ best route to success.
Nevertheless, in the 27th minute, it was Fleck who handed them the lead with a piercing effort from distance which left Roberto grasping at thin air.
As Deco’s influence waned, so Fleck grew in stature.
The Scotsman was instrumental in the move which nearly saw United double their lead moments later but Billy Sharp touched his cross wide.
Moore saved at the feet of En Nesyri during a strong spell of Malaga pressure, O’Connell, who used to be a season ticket holder at the Spaniard’s La Rosaleda home, denied Jony with a well-timed tackle.
Adrian could, indeed should, have claimed a late equaliser after being gifted the ball in front of Moore but United’s goalkeeper saved with his foot.
“We dug in when we had to and also played some really good stuff,” Wilder said.
“That, again, was the sign of a team that’s together.”
Malaga: Roberto, Mikel, Luis Hernandez, Pablo, Borja, Juanpi, Chori, Rosales, Keko, Robles, Deco. Substitutes: Cifu, Recio, Baysse, Jony, Torres, Adrian, Prieto, En Nesyri, Mula, Muno9z, Carlos, Harper, Hicham, Arturo.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck (Evans 71), O’Connell, Basham, Clarke (Hanson 46), Sharp (Lavery 46), Coutts, Freeman, Stearman Wright 68), Lafferty (Stevens 46), Carruthers (Brooks 46). Substitutes: Stevens, Thomas, Bennett, Eastwood.
Star man: John Fleck
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