The UEFA Champions League Group Stage draw last night heralded the beginning of another European campaign for Real Madrid, who look to add an elusive tenth trophy to their collection. In Spain, the obsession with the Champions League for los merengues runs so deep that this is simply known as 'la décima' ('the tenth'). For six successive seasons, since the twilight of the first Galácticos era in the early 2000s, Real Madrid went out in the Round of 16 after group stages that generated little confidence. Los vikingos were a laughingstock in Europe, and teams were eager to come to the Bernabéu, hoping for an easy scalp of a big team.
WIth the arrival of José Mourinho, all this changed. Real are now regarded by most as one of the two best teams in the world, along with Barcelona. The team, less cohesive a year ago and not reinforced by the likes of Coentrão and Sahin, stormed through a strong group including AC Milan before putting Lyon and Tottenham to the sword in the octo- and quarterfinals, going out in the semifinal against Barcelona in a close match-up decided by a highly dubious red card.
Real's struggles in Europe had previously caused them to drop into the pot of second seeds in the Champions League draw (akin to the United States having its credit rating downgraded to AA), but last year's strong performance earned the team its rightful place among Europe's elite. Placed into Group D with some familiar faces, Real Madrid escaped the worst of the draw and can expect, barring a significant reversal of fortunes, to easily top the group.
Real Madrid has recent history with two of these teams. Ajax was in the same group as Madrid last season, and los blancos brushed them aside 2-0 at the Bernabéu and then 4-0 in Amsterdam. Lyon had been a bogey team for los merengues, knocking them out at the Round of 16 the year before last, but last season the teams met at the same stage and Real dismantled the French giants 4-1 on aggregate. Neither team has strengthened particularly, and, along with Croatian dark horses Dinamo, will have essentially written off their chances at a first-placed finish.
Their favorable Pot 1 seeding notwithstanding, Real were somewhat fortunate to avoid Pot 2 pitfall and wounded titan AC Milan, who wound up in Barcelona's Group H, Pot 3 hazards such as the Manchester City nouveau riche, French champions Lille, and Russian powerhouse Zenit, and Pot 4 dark horses German champion Borussia Dortmund and, to a much lesser extent, Napoli.
All things being equal, Real can be pleased with the group. Should the team keep its concentration up, they should have little difficulty dispatching such opposition. The real challenges will come in the knockout rounds, where the margins for error are slim as a razor's edge and the competition is stiffer. For now, however, los merengues are still in the hunt for another crack at 'la décima'.