The year 1992 has a lot to answer for. Saccharine, plastic soul masquerading as sass colonised the pop charts. At the cinema, the Bodyguard, Basic Instinct and the execrable Sister Act were sat amongst the year’s highest grossing films, failing to provide the nation respite from John Major’s austere government whose principal aim seemed to be to eradicate fun.
Worse still, 1992 was the year that the very fabric of modern football was woven. The advent of the Premier League spawned a new game of football; a gruesome corporate-pleasing, money-chasing, competition-killing distortion of its former self. European football’s landscape too was altered irrevocably as the European Cup suffered a huge makeover. The all-encompassing twin forces of commercialism and globalisation abounding, the exoticism of travelling to Eastern Europe and the deep-seated fear of being knocked out of European football by September were eradicated.
In their place evolved groups of four, each team being guaranteed six matches before their fate was sealed. Cash generation, of course, was the principal attraction. Nauseatingly self-congratulating yet repetitively uncompetitive, the Champions League is nothing more than the avaricious, morbidly obese guise of its once vivacious self.
Once in a while, however, the format throws up something to justify its existence. During 1998/99, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester United and Brondby contested an exhilarating group, overseeing 42 goals and the progression of the season’s eventual finalists. A similar fate may await the 2012/13 Champions League’s Group D, which pits Manchester City against Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund.
It is a group truly befitting of the tournament’s name. Each side enters the competition as domestic champions, all adding their own unique subtext to the competition.
Real Madrid requires little elucidation. Nine times winners of the competition, their success in both forms of Europe’s foremost tournament is unparalleled. Furthermore, Jose Mourinho’s contemporary Meringues befit the club’s rich history. Last season’s domestic success is arguably the greatest of modern times. Belying the pervading criticism that they were ‘strong against the weak, and weak against the strong’, 2011/12 was the season they finally found a formula to outwit Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, hitherto the greatest club team ever constructed. Needless to say, they present Manchester City’s most formidable challenge.
Whilst Borussia Dortmund’s current ensemble lacks the star quality which defined their 1997 success, they play with an intensity which is as terrifying as it is thrilling. A multi-talented side capable of imposing itself on games as an attacking force and counter-attacking with devastating effect, City’s pedestrian midfield has not yet faced a test quite like that which awaits them in Westfalenstadion.
Ajax, too, harbour justifiable hopes of heaping ignominy on Roberto Mancini’s men. The Amsterdam giants are elevated amongst Europe’s heavyweights by football’s greatest conveyor belt of talent. No club has done more for the European game tactically throughout history than this most progressive, fluid of teams. Again, their progressive nature, the care with which they treat possession, flummoxed Manchester United in last season’s Europa League. City must be wary.
The group, inasmuch as it cannot be predicted, is a welcome anomaly for a competition whose early stages are otherwise devoid of drama. All that is required of Manchester City is to devise a way to negotiate it. One thing is for certain; it will be magnificent entertainment watching them try.
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