Last summer Barcelona and Real Madrid were eclipsed in the game at which they, and they alone, typically compete. Cesc Fàbregas finally returned to the Camp Nou accompanied by the Chilean sensation from Udinese, Alexis Sánchez, for a combined sum of €55m.

Across the country in Castille, Nuri Şahin, José Callejón and Raphaël Varane set Madrid back less than half that amount, and then Fábio Coentrão was bought for €30m to restore relative normality. Barcelona’s net spend was, in the 2011 summer transfer window, -€8.25m; Madrid’s was -€46m. Neither matched Málaga.

Backed by members of the Qatari Royal Family, the club from Andalusia spent near to €60m – most notably €19m on Santi Carzorla, one of the cast of Euro 2008, and €10m on Jérémy Toulalan from Lyon – though their biggest coup cost markedly less.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, top scorer in the Dutch, English and Spanish leagues, and the Champions League in 2004/05, arrived on a free transfer from Hamburg, and with him brought a sense of credibility to the Málaga project. "There’s a trend of clubs being taken over and spending crazy amounts but this is different," said the Dutchman. "There has been a lot of money spent but Málaga are building in a very serious way. This project comes with care and vision."

He refers to his former club, Madrid, which he left as the 2010 World Cup approached. The Galáctico era saw a staggering half a billion euros worth of talent play at the Bernabeu, but Madrid won the league only three times between 2000 and 2007 - Florentino Perez’s first stint as president - and the Champions League once. A policy of appearances on reputation rather than form, wild instability in the coaching staff, and a perceived lack of interest in defence meant that this first Galactico project failed spectacularly. The current Madrid side is the most expensively-assembled team in history, but look immovable on their day – their only long-term problem remains Barcelona.

Málaga are different. There appeared to be a certain rationality behind the seemingly frenzied spending. "If you look at the players we have signed," said general manager Fernando Hierro to World Soccer magazine in 2011, "they were all signed for reasonable prices. There has been no madness." They bought with a vision of a united team, rather than eleven individuals on a field: Joaquín, Santi Cazorla and Isco – described by the sporting director as the best player of his generation – were brought in to provide attacking drive; Jeremy Toulalan, Joris Mathijsen, Natxo Monreal and Martin Demichelis would shore up the defense.

They did not, however, simply spend for the sake of spending in an attempt to ward off their rivals. It is a transfer policy reflective of their long-term progressive ambitions: Málaga are being realistic in their approach to the league. With Barcelona and Madrid often settled into first and second after a few weeks of the season have elapsed, it is left to a core of sides to fight for the remaining Champions League places. Villarreal, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Valencia are the sides that traditionally contest for the elite European competition and it is this group, rather than the top two, that Málaga are looking to challenge.

"There’s no chance [of competing with Madrid and Barcelona]," says Hierro. "Over the last two years they have been 25 or 30 points ahead of the rest. That’s the reality. But behind them there is a group of teams that Malaga can aspire to get into. It’s very hard to see anyone from that group fighting for the first or second slot in the table, but the chasing pack has the hope of being able to cut that gap, getting closer. It can’t be 25 or 30 points any more."

As it stands, the margin is wider. Málaga sit in fourth, 32 points behind Barcelona, and 39 behind Madrid. These two sides will likely finish at least 30 points ahead of the rest. Valencia, in third, are closer to relegation than second place (29 points behind Barcelona; 21 in front of Real Zaragoza). But these are tired figures, discussed come every season’s end. Málaga should qualify for the Champions League if they can maintain focus for their final two matches – a 1-0 victory over Valencia appears now to be crucial – but that they are challenging for European competition at all after just one season of this new project taking effect is remarkable.

In 2006 they were relegated to the Segunda División, reurning in 2008 to finish eighth. The following season they avoided relegation by a single point. Last year the differences were simply astonishing: in 11th, Malaga were three points from relegation – and 50 from the summit.

The turnaround has been admirable. They were ambitious at the beginning of this season; Europe, they believed, was achievable. Even with the money flowing through the club, surely nobody could have anticipated such a performance. It has not been without its complications, however: Manuel Pellegrini asked for signings in January, and only Carlos Kameni of Espanyol arrived. Salaries have been paid late – though this is as common as entirely unpaid players in the league – and though players were paid for three months at once in February, they were left wondering about the following three. This kind of behaviour has put a strain on the players and the staff, and has created tensions between those who should be paying, and those who are playing. It is an undesirable atmosphere at a club looking to reach the Champions League for the first time in their history.

There were, inevitably, problems on the field; it was never likely to click immediately. Van Nistelrooy and last season’s top scorer Salomón Rondón have scored only 13 goals between them, and a series of indifferent results stretching from early December through to mid-February saw Málaga slip from third to ninth. The loss of Júlio Baptista to a foot injury was a setback from the beginning. He played the first four games of their season despite his injury, and has not played since. Of those four, Málaga won three and drew one. He provides a definite determination to succeed, which Málaga have sorely needed at a number of critical points in the season. Should they miss out on the Champions League this year, his absence will have been a major contributing factor.

Issues in defence have not helped their cause. They have a habit of conceding late, with crippling consequences. Leading 2-1 with two minutes remaining, they lost 3-2 to Real Sociedad. Drawing 1-1 at Sporting de Gijón, having leveled in the 88th minute, they let in another. They led Madrid 2-0 in the Copa del Rey and went out 3-2 losers. Most recently, against Villarreal, they contrived to concede in the 94th minute and left El Madrigal with nothing to show. But this proclivity to capitulate is offset somewhat by their ability to score key goals of their own with little time left in the match.

Málaga will not win the league anytime soon. It is difficult to class such a statement as a prediction either: only nine clubs have ever won the Spanish Primera Division, and only two sides other than Barcelona or Madrid have triumphed since the turn of the century – Valencia in 2001/02 and 2003/04, Deportivo La Coruña in 1999/00. It has been 66 years since either Sevilla or Real Betis have won the league, and 28 since Real Sociedad or Athletic Bilbao finished first. The margins between the top two and the rest continue to swell.

But Málaga understand the history of Spanish football. Their aim was not to win the league, nor to finish second. Indeed, the Champions League has looked beyond them at times. Investment in Manchester has seen a new force emerge in the Premier League, and relatively similar spending in France means that Paris Saint-Germain are troubling the top of Ligue 1 again. But Málaga are surrounded by giants. Despite significant investment, they will always be overshadowed by the powers in Catalonia and Castille. Hierro claims, "The aim is to grow bit by bit, to get as high as we can." It is a respectable ambition, and one which this project has every chance of fulfilling.

You can read more from Max Grieve at The Substitution.