Can Mourinho triumph again in Champions League or have Real peaked too early?
Jose Mourinho’s gamble of swapping Champions League holders Inter Milan for recent underachievers Real Madrid looks to have paid off following a group stage where his new side excelled.
In contrast, Inter stumbled through to the last 16 in wholly unconvincing fashion, suggesting the coach with the Midas touch was right to bet the Italians would not be able to repeat the highs of last season’s glorious treble.
However, the Portuguese, whose only blot was a one-game ban for ordering two of his team to pick up deliberate yellow cards thus ruling them out of the final group stage game, knows the Champions League is never won in December.
Real have failed to progress to the quarter-finals in each of the last six seasons despite reaching February’s first knockout round every time, so former Porto and Chelsea boss Mourinho has work to do to become the first coach to win the trophy with three clubs.
Finishing as the best group stage team with 16 points and battering Auxerre 4-0 on Wednesday when already through bode well, but threats in the knockout rounds lurk.
“We are prepared, in good form and focused on the Champions League,” Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored one against Auxerre as Karim Benzema hit a hat-trick, told reporters.
“We know all our opponents are tough.”
Bitter rivals Barcelona had two draws in Group D but the magic of Lionel Messi, Xavi and company should sparkle even more when the really big games come.
Inter were the only unit able to stop Pep Guardiola’s side last season but their chances of similar success this term look doomed. Certainly their fans will say they can play no worse.
Rafael Benitez is clinging to his job after Tuesday’s 3-0 loss at Werder Bremen, albeit in a dead game, and he must hope the club’s top scorer last season, Diego Milito, can prosper after injury and boost their European and domestic hopes.
City rivals AC Milan lurched through and the 2-0 home defeat by eliminated Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic was rested for an hour, confirmed the view that the seven-times winners are toothless without the Swede.
Ronaldinho’s glory years are also now just a distant memory.
“I am calm about staying at Milan, I only want to do my best to help the team,” the 30-year-old Brazilian, no longer a regular at the Serie A leaders, told Milan Channel after speculation of a Janaury move.
“I feel the affection and love of the fans even when I don’t play. It’s an important year.”
The three big English sides, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, are not in top form and must improve while Tottenham Hotspur are the competition’s joint-top scorers, but their shaky defence will be severely tested in the knockout format.
Last term’s runners-up Bayern Munich have again quietly made it through and Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Basel when already qualified shows their Champions League hunger remains despite domestic woes.
Olympique Marseille and AS Roma did well to progress and could pose opponents problems in February, even if hopes of reaching the final look remote, similarly Schalke 04, Olympique Lyon and Valencia.
FC Copenhagen and Shakhtar Donetsk punched above their weight in the group stage, both making the first knockout round for the first time.
Their entrance into the upper echelons of the competition adds much-needed freshness and the pair will be eagerly awaiting the draw on December 17 with some juicy last 16 ties possible.