PARIS, France, September 17 – When a club as big as Real Madrid lose two of their first four league games of the season, talk of a crisis is never far behind.
So it is a major test of the mettle of their coach Jose Mourinho as to how he picks his star-studded side up from the disappointment of the latest defeat at Sevilla for Tuesday’s Champions League opener with big-spending Manchester City.
Mourinho, of course, is a seasoned campaigner at this level, as one of only three men — alongside Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld — to have lifted Europe’s ultimate prize with two different clubs, Porto and Inter Milan.
But expectations in Madrid are high, with the fans desperate to end their 10-year drought and finally collect their 10th European crown.
Yet all is clearly not well behind the scenes at the Bernabeu, with Cristiano Ronaldo offering only the most muted of celebrations for his brace of goals against Granada and then declaring himself to be “sad”.
New signing Luca Modric is slowly finding his feet, but Mesut Ozil, one of the driving forces of last season’s run to the semi-finals and the league title, has looked tired and out of sorts.
With Ozil and Ronaldo both misfiring, much rests on the shoulders of playmaker Xabi Alonso and French frontman Karim Benzema to reproduce the home form that saw Real fire in 24 goals in their six Champions League home games last season.
Mourinho made no excuses for losing in Sevilla.
“It’s a general state of mind,” he said. “At the moment there aren’t many of them out there thinking that football is the priority in their lives. I could only count on two or three of them.”
But he refused to single out Ronaldo for criticism.
“There is no connection between the rumours in the press these past weeks and our poor performances. We were already bad against Getafe and even against Granda (where Real won 3-0),” he said.
City, on the other hand, have got off to a solid start in the defence of their English League title.
Desperate to join Europe’s top table after years in the shadow of mighty neighbours United, City lie in fourth place with eight points and are unbeaten in their first four games.
City manager Roberto Mancini insists key striker Sergio Aguero has a chance of featuring against Real despite the Argentina international struggling to recover from an ankle problem.
He didn’t play in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Stoke after returning to training earlier in the week and Mancini had suggested he needed to prove his fitness there to have a chance of facing Real.
But despite leaving Aguero out of the squad, Mancini said he was still likely to play in Spain.
“Real Madrid is one of the best teams in the world and to play the first game away will be very tough, but at the same time it will be a fantastic game for everyone,” said Mancini.
Elsewhere, the close season’s biggest spenders, Paris St Germain and Zenit St Petersburg both face tricky openers.
PSG, fresh from splashing 140 million euros of Qatari cash on bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gregory van der Wiel and Marco Verratti, to the French cpaital, entertain a dogged Dynamo Kyiv.
Zenit, who shelled out 100 million euros of their own on the aptly-named Brazilian striker Hulk from Porto and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel from Benfica, have a long trip to Spain to take on Malaga.
And they will not need reminding that money is no guarantee of success as with both men making their league debuts, Zenit crumbled to a 2-0 home defeat to surprise early Russian league leaders Terek Grozny.
The other ties feature a string of perennial qualifiers.
AC Milan and Anderlecht clash in the San Siro, while Borussia Dortmund and Ajax meet in the heart of the Ruhr.
Dinamo Zagreb entertain FC Porto and in an intriguing Greco-German match-up Schalke 04 travel to Olympiakos.
Arsenal will be on unfamiliar territory when they travel to the south of France for their tie against newcomers Montpellier.