If only we had an alternate label for this very difficult group. Unfortunately, the only thing to talk about the games, starting with the day’s headline act in Madrid:
Real Madrid vs. Manchester City
Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
The second-biggest game of Champions League’s group stage helps kickoff the tournament proper. The biggest match will be Real Madrid’s trip to Manchester City, with greater stakes and City’s fanbase (just starting to enjoy their club’s new success) setting the stage for two of the world’s most talented and expensive teams. But given there are few atmospheres better than Madrid’s, it’s difficult to get a better start than Spain and England’s champions meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu.
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Because of their connections to Inter Milan (where José Mourinho succeeded Roberto Mancini after three-straight league titles), the two coaches have stolen much of the pre-match focus, a shame given the talent on the field. Each team will fill their XI with depth we usually see only three times per season: the two Clasicos (though there’ve been more lately) and the Champions League final. Thanks to City’s low UEFA coefficient (still not at the same level as their talent), we’re getting two similarly spectacular matchups in group stage.
For the first meeting, expect to see a highly motivated Real Madrid. Weekend disappointment left Mourinho publicly expressing frustration with his club’s 1-1-2 (W-L-D) start. Just as concerning is the team’s lack of goals, having scored only five times this season. Coming after weeks of concern for Cristiano Ronaldo’s emotional health, rancor off the field has given Tuesday’s meeting the feel of a must-win match for Los Merengues.
Trying to match Real’s intensity, City is likely to be shorthanded. Sergio Aguero has been out since the season opener, and while he had targeted Tuesday’s match for a possible return, the Argentine attacker is unlikely to figure at the Bernabeu. That leaves Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli (just returning from an injury of his own) to fill the space in front of Carlos Tévez.
Borussia Dortmund vs. Ajax
BVB Stadion, Dortmund, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
In theory, this should be a straight forward match for Borussia Dortmund. The two-time reigning Bundesliga champions are the more talented side, and while Ajax are champions of the Netherlands, the Eredivisie’s quality doesn’t match its reputation (it’s been five years since a Dutch team made it past group stage). If everything plays out by the book, BVB should have a comfortable night in Dortmund.
But then there’s last year, when Dortmund finished at the bottom of a group that included Arsenal, Marseille, and Olympiacos. Coming off a summer where Arsenal had lose both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasir, BVB was picked by some to win the group. Few thought Marseille would beat them out. Ultimately, BVB couldn’t even claim the third place spot that would have qualified them for Europa League.
Has anything changed this year? Against an Ajax team that has undergone major changes (but remains potent, with Christian Eriksson and Siem de Jong) it may be hard to tell. Even if BVB wins comfortably, the gap between Ajax and the group’s other members is so large, a positive result’s unlikely to tell us much.
Instead, BVB may be looking to show something more ethereal. Progress may be measured in the command and composure we see from Robert Lewandowski, Kevin Grosskreutz, Mario Götze, Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic. The young core that’s mastered the Bundesliga needs to show that expertise at the next level.