Sad Ronaldo, rival coaches lead Manchester City-Madrid subplots
Manchester City at Real Madrid is the best Champions League matchup this week
Cristiano Ronaldo is unhappy, and Real Madrid is off to a slow start in La Liga play
Coaches Roberto Mancini (City) and Jose Mourinho (Madrid) do not see eye to eye
This season, the people of Madrid are seeing a new Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese coach, his position strengthened after winning La Liga and the Spanish SuperCup last month, is no longer the firestarter who accuses UEFA of pro-Barcelona bias, pokes opposition assistant coaches in the eye (as he did to Tito Villanova, now in charge of Barcelona, 12 months ago), or uses press conferences to start a new row with an authority figure.
Instead, he has been turning the attacks on his own team, which has lost two of its opening four matches this season and is already eight points behind leaders Barcelona.
"I am worried that in this moment I don't have a team," he told the Spanish press after Saturday's loss to Sevilla. "There are very few heads who are committed and concentrated, and who have football as the priority in their lives. When you don't have people who are committed, it's tough."
The question, as Real Madrid starts its quest for "la decima," the 10th European Cup/Champions League in its history, is will there be commitment on display this week, and how Mourinho will play things, when his team comes up against English champion Manchester City and, specifically, its coach, Roberto Mancini.
There are so many subplots to this tie, the standout game from this week's Matchday One fixtures, it's hard to know where to start. Madrid star man Cristiano Ronaldo, formerly of Manchester United, has been the talking point in Spanish football after revealing he was "sad ... for professional reasons" a fortnight ago, with speculation mounting that he wants a new contract, which Madrid has so far not offered (forget about the amounts for a moment, and it seems reasonable that Ronaldo, given he has scored 151 goals in 150 games and has not had a raise in three years since joining the club, should be offered some kind of pay review). And yet the same player was offered an eye-watering €17 million a year contract, after tax, by Manchester City last summer.
Don't forget Mario Balotelli, Mancini's golden boy, who was declared "unmanageable" by Mourinho when they were both at Internazionale; City's star players Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero played for Real Madrid's two biggest rivals, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, and will be extra motivated; and Luka Modric, a new Real Madrid signing but once on the radar of City, too. And then, there are the coaches.
Mancini has made it clear that after winning the FA Cup in his first full season in charge at City, and the Premier League in his second, the Champions League is his target this season.
"We have started a cycle but to win the Champions League, it will take more," Mancini told Gazzetta dello Sport after City clinched the Premier League title in dramatic circumstances last May. "It will take time, patience and experience. Still, I have the sensation that we could do it. Once you have started to win and you know how to do it, many things follow as a consequence."
The criticism from Italy of Mancini as a coach is that success in European competition has eluded him; something that has not been a problem for Mourinho, who won this competition with Porto in 2004 and Inter in 2010. After Inter's victory over Bayern Munich in that 2010 final, Mourinho boasted that he had outperformed Mancini, who had been his predecessor. Given that Inter had won a Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble, it was hard to disagree, but Mancini was not impressed.
"Listen, when I arrived at Inter, the club had not won anything for almost 20 years," Mancini responded in an interview with French magazine So Foot. "And we won. A lot. A huge amount. The Champions League was only a matter of time. Now, if Mourinho took advantage of my work, I don't know. I did my work and we won things. What is important is to have changed history."
Earlier this month, Mourinho traveled to Manchester to watch City beat Queens Park Rangers 3-1. It was a rare scouting trip for him. Normally he sends his own scouts pre-European matches, but this was an interesting move. As always with Mourinho, it can be over-analyzed: was it a sign of respect to, and even fear of, City that Mourinho came over? Or was it a message to Mancini, as if to say, "I'm keeping a close eye on you, so you will have to come up with something special to beat me."?
Just like last season, Mancini can consider himself unlucky with the draw in Group D: along with Borussia Dortmund (Germany) and Ajax (Holland) the group has four league champions, three of whom -- bar Ajax -- would have considered themselves contenders for the title. Last year, City won 10 points from a group containing Bayern Munich (eventual runner-up), Napoli and Villarreal -- but it drew its first home game and lost its first away game.
With Dortmund coming to Manchester for Matchday Two, Mancini knows that one point from its first two games once again will leave City struggling to qualify. Mourinho would probably take extra pleasure from making life difficult for him.