Madrid kick off quest for La Decima

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Visit the official Real Madrid website before their 2012-13 Champions League opener against Manchester City and you're greeted with an intimidating image.

Well, it's intimidating for Roberto Mancini, his City superstars and the hoards of travelling fans from Manchester who will no doubt branch out into the home ends of the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night as well as take up their sold-out away allocation high up in the top tier of the Fondo Norte.

It's a picture showing a perfect row of Madrid's nine, glistening European Cups standing proud in the Bernabeu boardroom. Just slighty off to the right, almost leaving a space at the front intended for La Décima.

Madrid has an obsession with the European Cup; that obsession kicks off again against the English Premier League champions in the Spanish capital.

Los Blancos have won the competition, in all its formats, more than anyone else -- nine times in total. Five times on the bounce from 1956-60, 1966, 1998, 2000 and 2002.

So what's in store for 2013? Eleven years is a long time for a club who believe it's their destiny to win Europe's showpiece club competition every single season.

For lots of clubs, simply qualifying for the competition is classed as a success. For fewer, progression into the knock-out stages can be deemed as a good, money-spinning year. For a handful, the final is the aim. For Madrid? Anything less than winning is a failure.

It's a pressure that has haunted Los Blancos for many years. Before Jose Mourinho's arrival, they struggled to even make it beyond the quarter-finals. In his first season they progressed beyond that. In the second season they reached the semi-finals, knocked out only on the 'lottery' of a penalty shoot-out. There are certainly signs of continued improvement and Madridistas will be desperate for that to continue even further this campaign.

So, then, can the Champions League act as a much-needed inspiration for a Madrid side who've struggled out of the blocks in La Liga this season?

Motivation, concentration and spirit are certainly the 'buzz' words from the pre-match interviews being given by Mourinho and his players on the eve of their Group D opener.

Their group really is a "Champions" "League," quite a rarity in today's modern competition. When clubs as low as fourth in their domestic league can qualify, all four teams in Group D are the champions of their respective leagues.

Good leagues, too. Madrid, the Spanish champions; City, the English champions; Borussia Dortmund, the German champions; and Ajax, the Dutch champions.

For Madrid, it's seemingly a case of "if we can't get up for the Champions League, then something's definitely wrong."

So does the tough clash with City, involved in the competition for just their second season, come at just the right time for Los Blancos following their poor start domestically? (One win, one draw and two defeats from their opening four league matches.) Or does it arrive just to add further worries to Mourinho and his employer Florentino Perez?

Let's get one thing straight. Although Madrid go into every game looking to win and look at every trophy with the aims of lifting it, the Champions League is the big one that Perez -- and probably Mourinho -- want. It's the reason the "Special One" arrived at the Bernabeu. To lift La Décima.

With La Liga firmly in the trophy cabinet from last season, next on the "to do" list is the Champions League. If Madrid do miss out on retaining the league title this season -- and there's still a long, long way to go despite things not looking too rosy early on -- winning their tenth European Cup would more than make up for losing out in the league. Both, of course, would be perfect.

Champions League nights are special nights at the Bernabeu and tomorrow night is undoubtedly a big one for Madrid, not just for their hopes of winning the competition, but for the remainder of the season and all competitions.

Los Blancos need a boost, and victory over a big-spending and high-in-quality side such as City in their opening European match of the season would surely give them just that.

Trophies aside, Los Blancos' record in their opening home Champions League matchesis frightening: They've never lost their first home game in the competition at the Santiago Bernabeu. That's 42 matches since the 1962-63 season, winning 40, drawing two and losing none. Also, they've not conceded a goal in their last four home openers. Beat that.

In City, Madrid will definitely face a stern test. Possibly their toughest opener for some time. The Premier League champions didn't have their best debut in the competition last term, failing to qualify from their group, but they'll undoubtedly be stronger this time around. Buoyed by the league title win and enriched by their experience in last season's competition.

They have star names in Carlos Tevez (firing on all cylinders at the start of this season); Mario Balotelli, who will thrive on the big stage of the Bernabeu; Spanish international David Silva; plus Samir Nasri and Vincent Kompany to name but a few. Former Atletico man Sergio Aguero will also be hoping to play despite a knee injury.

In that sense, it's almost the ideal opener for Madrid. No secrets, no unknown quantities. Star performers against star performers. Los Blancos have already seen off Barcelona over two legs this season, showing they can still hit top form, and maybe coming up against another top-class outfit will make Mourinho's confidence-sapped side raise their game just when it matters.

Let the quest for La Décima begin.

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