Manchester City’s first tilt at Champions League glory ended in a heartbreaking group stage exit a year ago having been drawn in a tough group — though the club then went on to lift the Premier League crown.
Many observers will feel lightning is likely to strike twice as the signs are this season could prove a virtual re-run of last.
City pipped Manchester United to the Premier League post in May and now lead their local rivals by a point after a weekend steamrolling of Aston Villa.
Sadly for City manager Roberto Mancini’s men, today’s opponents, Real Madrid, are not Villa.
Real manager Jose Mourinho’s side come to Manchester knowing they cannot risk leaving empty-handed as the nine-time champions seek to close the Group D door firmly shut on a City side who have taken just two points from their opening four fixtures.
It could have been so different for Mancini’s side — they were on the brink of victory in the Bernabeu before Karim Benzema and Ronaldo overturned a 2-1 deficit in the last five minutes.
Instead of pulling off a win which would have left them a point clear of the Spaniards, City instead trail Mourinho’s side by five points and group leaders Borussia Dortmund by six to stare another premature elimination in the face.
Mancini concedes that the odds are stacked against City, but after wiping the floor with Villa he knows the club are in the global spotlight today and should make the most of the occasion.
City striker Sergio Aguero, on a hot streak with four goals in three games, said the team have to be single-minded as their mission is crystal clear.
Losing in Spain was bad enough, but failing to beat Dortmund and then dropping four points over two games against Ajax has all but pushed City through the trapdoor leading to the Europa League.
If the Dutch can beat the Germans — and should Real lose — then Ajax would draw level on points with Mourinho’s “Blancos.”
The Portuguese, hoping to end a barren decade for Real and become the first man to lead three clubs to glory after wins with FC Porto and then Inter, is to reach a milestone today as he becomes, at 49, the youngest coach to sit in the dugout for 100 Champions League matches.
Others to reach the tonne-up mark are Paris Saint-Germain manager Carlo Ancelotti, 51, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, 58; Switzerland manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, 58; and United manager Alex Ferguson, 62.
As City teeter on the brink, Arsenal will hope to join Manchester United as English participants in the knockout stages, but the Gunners will at least need to beat French champions Montpellier Herault, while hoping that Schalke 04 beat Greek outfit Olympiakos.
Schalke took four points off Wenger’s side and lead Group B by a point from Arsenal, but Olympiakos are only a point further back after beating Montpellier.
If the Londoners drop points and the Greeks spring a surprise or even draw in Germany, the group would be thrown wide open.
Arsenal have a curiously poor home record in the competition against French sides, with no wins in four previous encounters.
However, they do have the momentum of a weekend derby win over Tottenham Hotspur.
Visiting AC Milan will meanwhile look to hold off Belgium’s RSC Anderlecht and avoid falling at the group stage for the first time in 13 seasons.
Massimiliano Allegri’s men only lead the Belgians by one point, with Malaga having already wrapped up qualification after drawing in Italy.
Zenit St Petersburg will hope to stay in the mix by beating Malaga, who have piled up 10 points already in this their debut season.
Two-time European champions Porto have qualified from Group A, likewise with 10 points on the board even before they host a GNK Dinamo Zagreb side who have lost all four of their contests to date.
Paris Saint-Germain should accompany the Portuguese to the last 16 as they have a five-point advantage over their hosts, Dynamo Kiev.