As the champions of Spain and England prepare to meet each other tonight in the first round of group stage matches in the 2012-13 Champions League, the pressure on Real Madrid to win the competition has intensified as a result of early season form and the long wait since their last success.
When Florentino Perez hired Jose Mourinho in 2010, the Coach admitted his ambition was to ‘win everything’. Having finally overcome Barcelona in last year’s Primera Division, attention now turns to the Champions League where Madrid have not tasted success since the 2002 Final at Hampden Park.
That was the club's ninth European Cup and, as their third in five seasons, alongside the waves of investment from Perez, it seemed likely that Los Galacticos were well placed add to their tally. However, the barren period which followed culminated in a series of embarrassing Last 16 exits for a club used to dining at Europe’s top table.
The arrival of Mourinho brought instant improvement on the continental stage and during the last two years Madrid have had little trouble in negotiating the group stages and early knockout rounds. Instead it has been at the semi-final stage where Real have struggled. Whilst it may have been an upset not to see Real return to the final last term, there are elements of their play to suggest why. Against both Barcelona in 2011 and Bayern Munich in 2012, Madrid were outplayed largely as a result of losing the battle for possession. As much as that was expected – and planned for – against Guardiola’s outfit, the fact Bayern were able to retain the ball better in deeper areas last term will have been especially grating for Mourinho.
The problems were not necessarily in midfield but at full-back where Bayern’s pair of Philipp Lahm and David Alaba made intelligent and economical use of the ball. Their 95 per cent passing success rate in the Bernabeu far outstripped the somewhat erratic contributions of Alvaro Arbeloa and Marcelo, who posted a 77 per cent average success rate.
What will be particularly concerning this term for Mourinho is the club’s lethargic displays so far this season. Having only dropped 14 points in the entirety of the last campaign, they have already squandered eight, with just four games of the season played. Catching a rejuvenated Barcelona may prove too challenging and serves to heap further pressure on capturing the Champions League in May 2013.
And, in what is a competitive pool including Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, it is doubly important that Madrid get off to a strong start in tonight's much-anticipated clash with Manchester City. Mourinho’s usually fraught relationships with his predecessors will only serve to heighten the importance of a return to form for Los Blancos against Roberto Mancini’s men.
The Portuguese tactician has questioned the mentality of his players by suggesting that their attitude has only been right for the Supercopa success against Barcelona. If Los Blancos are going to make a habit of raising their performances for the biggest opposition, tonight would be a good opportunity to do so and one which would prove crucial if Madrid are to add a 10th European Cup title to their trophy cabinet.