Football: Mallorca in mood for finest happy hour

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The Independent Online
AN INSTANT reaction to the draw for the European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-finals, the first legs of which take place on Thursday, was that Chelsea had drawn the weakest of the survivors, Real Mallorca. It was overlooked that only two clubs in Europe's strongest leagues, Bayern Munich and Arsenal, have meaner defences than Mallorca, who could well leave Chelsea without a trophy this season.

Even though last weekend Mallorca lost 2-1 at home to Deportivo La Coruna, their defence, which has conceded only 21 league goals, has been the key to their ability to rise above financial problems and, in the early months of the season, head the Spanish championship table. They remain only a point behind Real Madrid, although a gap of eight points has opened up behind the league leaders, Barcelona.

As an indication of Mallorca's new standing in Spain, three of their side have had to be recognised in the national squad: the rugged centre- back Elena Sierra Marcelino, who at the age of 27 has only recently won his first cap; Vicente Engonga, who had been playing in the Spanish league for years without previous international recognition; and Dani, once one of Spain's brightest young hopes but whose career failed to blossom at Real Madrid.

The former Liverpool player Michael Robinson, now working in Spanish television, summed up Mallorca's success: "The Spanish clubs still keep attracting star players from around the world, but not even Real and Barcelona have built outstanding teams. Mallorca's secret is simple - they have got themselves a proper side." Remarkably, that has been achieved in spite of the club selling or releasing nine players last summer. The fans, astonished to see their side finish fifth last season, were convinced that the momentum would be lost.

The man behind the continuing unlikely success of a club from an island used to being portrayed more for its "all-day happy hours" than its history, beauty and football is Hector Cuper, a 42-year-old Argentine who has suddenly become the most wanted manager in Spain. Mallorca want him to stay but the chances are he will be off to a club where the need to sell players to survive is not as pressing and depressing.

Cuper said: "We are often beating the big clubs in Spain so we know we can tame a team with as many stars as Chelsea, but I don't know whether Mallorca has ambition." He has built this season's hard-running team largely upon Argentine players bought at little cost, but he has also revived careers, not least that of Dani, who has yet to put his season's scoring record into double figures but is looking sharp in any opposing area.

The back four of Soler, Siviero, Marcelino and Olaizola are solid but if they are to succeed, first Chelsea will need to break through the midfield work of Lauren and Engonga. And even if they do they will also have to overcome the Argentine international goalkeeper Carlos Roa.

Chelsea are aware that so far in their defence of this last ever Cup- Winners' Cup competition they have eased their way past comparatively low quality opposition. However, the relief of the manager Gianluca Vialli at avoiding Lazio will be tempered by the serious need of at least a two-goal margin of victory at home to Mallorca. They will put out of their minds the fact that Mallorca beat Barcelona home and away in the Super Cup.