Jose Mourinho doesn't usually do third seasons. He tried it once at Chelsea and it ended in a breakdown of relations with his employer and the sack. Likewise, the manager-mulching machine at Real Madrid likes to be fed at least once every two seasons. Mourinho is the first coach to get a third term in 10 years.
Both sides are on unfamiliar territory and the fragile pact between them is held together by one thing and one thing alone – the Champions League.
A dressing room divided between those who share the manager's agent, Jorge Mendes, and those who don't; a draining summer taking its toll on international players, who Mourinho believes have yet to focus on the new season; and being two points from the drop and eight points from Barcelona in La Liga are all dark clouds that will be blown away by victory tonight over Manchester City in the only competition that really matters this season.
Madrid want to be the first club to win the European Cup 10 times. For too long now they have lived off the "best club of the 20th century" honour bestowed on them by Fifa in 2000. A decade of underachievement and, more recently, Barcelona's domination have left them needing a new boast that doesn't rely on the deeds of the last century.
Mourinho turned the liner around in his first season, radically transforming training techniques and the club's structure. He beat Barcelona in the 2011 Spanish Cup, convincing everyone to stick with the programme, and sure enough last season Real toppled Barça in the league and, as a consequence, his contract was extended.
The momentum would surely now take Real Madrid to their 10th European Cup and Mourinho's third. But the famous third season – only Mourinho's second crack at taking a team beyond a second campaign – has started disastrously. Last season it was December before the team had dropped eight points, this time they are already there.
The team is averaging more shots per game than last season but fewer of them have been on target. Karim Benzema has not scored since last season and is the butt of Barcelona supporters' jokes that even Javier Mascherano (with one own goal) has scored more. Cristiano Ronaldo is unhappy and Gonzalo Higuain has lacked focus, too. Defensively, Real look like conceding at every corner. Coming for high balls has never been Iker Casillas's strong point and, with defenders failing to do their jobs, goals like the one scored from a corner at the start of Saturday's defeat to Seville have been commonplace. All of these problems, however, will be forgotten with a masterful Champions League group phase but Mourinho has not been helped by the draw, which pits his side against City, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax.
"It is not normal for the champions of the three strongest leagues in Europe to all be drawn in the same group," he said. He has emphasised the long-term effects of such a difficult group leaving his team with more suspensions and injuries than any potential rivals who have had an easier path to the last 16.
City also have players who have an added incentive to put one over on their rivals tonight. David Silva was passed over by Real several times before he eventually moved to England; Javi Garcia is one of a crop of talented youngsters produced by Madrid but never given a chance; and Mario Balotelli comes up against the coach who as good as told him he wasn't worth the trouble.Reuse content