By Greg Stobart
When Roberto Mancini glances across from his position on the touchline at the Santiago Bernabeu tonight, the Manchester City manager will see a stark reminder of why he must put his Champions League hoodoo behind him.
As City embark on their European quest in the ‘group of champions’, Mancini comes up against Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, the man who replaced him at Inter and subsequently delivered the ultimate prize for the Italian club.
Having met City’s primary targets in the last two seasons - first finishing in the top four and then winning the Premier League - the next stage in the Abu Dhabi project is to conquer Europe and ultimately, the world.
While Mourinho is considered the Champions League king, having led Porto to glory in 2004 and Inter in 2010, Mancini’s record in Europe’s elite competition is beyond poor.
|CRUSHED ON THE CONTINENT
|2002-03: UEFA CUP
2003-04: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
|2004-05: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2005-06: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2006-07: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2007-08: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
| MANCHESTER CITY
|2010-11: EUROPA LEAGUE
2011-12: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2011-12: EUROPA LEAGUE
This year, City are drawn in Champions League Group D alongside Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax in a group that Mancini will know represents an equally difficult passage to advance past the first stage.
It starts at the home of the Spanish champions, in front of more than 80,000 supporters, but taking something from the game would represent the perfect start to the campaign for both City and Mancini.
Mancini has been in bullish mood ahead of the clash, insisting City will become European champions at some point given the ambition of the club and the huge investment by owner Sheikh Mansour.
"I am sure we will arrive to win this trophy in the future," Mancini said. "I do not know when, but I am sure because we are working for this. If we want to improve every year it is possible."
The 47-year-old must match his employers’ expectations by taking City to at least the second round - and he can hardly argue that he does not have the tools in a squad that includes the likes of David Silva, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure.
But failure in Europe really is an albatross around his neck. At Inter, he was criticised for his overly cautious approach in the competition as he only guided the team to one knockout victory, against holders Porto in 2005, during which time the furthest he managed to take the club was to the quarter-finals.
After winning three successive Serie A titles in a row, it was failure in Europe that cost Mancini his job at San Siro in 2008. And, as if to highlight Mancini's inadequacy in Europe, Mourinho steered Inter to Champions League glory two years later.
If the finale to the Premier League last season had panned out differently, it might have also contributed to his departure from City. When rivals Manchester United took an eight-point lead at the summit of the table in January, questions were being asked of Mancini from Abu Dhabi.
Thanks to Aguero’s strike in the final minute of the season, City won the title - their first since 1968 - and Mancini was rewarded with a handsome five-year contract, ending any uncertainty over his future.
|PAIN IN SPAIN|
|7/1||Real Madrid are 7/1 with Bet365 to beat Man City 2-1 at the Bernabeu|
The Portuguese has admirers within the Etihad Stadium and has shown in the past that he can build on Mancini’s good work and deliver the greatest prize in European football.
If City fail to remain in the Champions League beyond Christmas once again, those doubts over Mancini could re-emerge. Tonight, under the floodlights in the Spanish capital, they could go a long way to making sure that does not happen.
Follow Greg Stobart on