Real Madrid begins its Champions League knock-out rounds campaign this week. Real has failed to make it out of the round of 16 each of the past seven seasons. Were this any other club or if they had any other coach, the goal would just be to move past the round of 16.
But this is Real Madrid. The nine-time European Champions are not content with improvement. They expect perfection, and anything less than a championship is considered a failure.
Additionally, they have Jose Mourinho at the helm. He expects perfection and the Madrid ownership brought him to the club to win the title, not just improve on past results.
With the expectations incredibly high, the question is whether Real can actually live up to the expectations and make a legitimate run and win the title.
Last year Mourinho was able to take the players and talent on Inter and win the Champions League. Let's look at last year's championship team and compare it with Real's present team to see if Mourinho has a better or worse group of players this season.
Julio Cesar v. Iker Casillas
Cesar gave up six goals in all Champions League games last season. In the knock out rounds he only conceded two goals, one to Chelsea and one to Barcelona. He also shut out both teams once. When it mattered most, Cesar played some of his best soccer of the season.
He was essential to Inter's championship campaign in not just the Champions League but also Serie A. He deservedly won the Goalkeeper of the Year. Any keeper who can shut out Chelsea and Barcelona in must win games is worthy of the award.
It would be hard for any kepper to replicate what Cesar accomplished last season. However, if any keeper can complete the task, it's Iker Casillas.
Casillas has only conceded two goals thus far in all Champions League games. He has played at as high of a level as expected from Casillas. The issue with Real Madrid's conceding goals is never related to Casillas but the quality and ability of the four or even eleven men in front of him.
So while Cesar is a world class keeper and had an incredible season last year, if any keeper can replicate it, it would be Casillas.
Real Madrid's defensive lineup has not been entirely consistent this season. It usually consists of Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe, Marcelo, Alvaro Arbeloa and Sergio Ramos. Lately it has been Ramos or Pepe that hasn't received the starting nod.
Normally teams like to have a set defensive lineup and use the same four players. Ideally a team would have the perfect lineup and be able to use the same 11 players each week. But more so than other position players, teams try to set and keep the same defenders as much as possible as it is imperative those four players be on the same page and understand one another.
The back four of Inter Milan last year consisted of Walter Samuel, the Brazilian tandem of Lucio and Maicon and the final spot alternated between Cristian Chivu and Dejan Stankovic. Thus, Mourinho is accustomed to having a back four that varied somewhat throughout the season and is able to make the correct changes as necessary.
Unlike Real however, Inter's defense also contributed to the goal scoring last season. In Serie A and the Champions League, Inter's five defenders scored 17 goals with 12 of those goals coming from Maicon and Stankovic.
Real's five defenders have only scored six goals thus far this season. While the season is only at the midpoint, the defenders still aren't contributing as much as Inter.
Granted, there are more ways a defender can contribute to the offense besides scoring goals. Marcelo and Ramos make numerous runs along the sidelines and do contribute in that manner, but between the two of them they only have one assist on the season.
If there was ever a season that Real needed contributions and help on offense, it is this season where they are lacking multiple scoring threats.
While one midfield spot varied between Gordon Pandev and Thiago Motta last season, the other three spots were pretty consistently filled by Cambiasso, Zanetti and Sneijder. Zanetti started every game in all competitions for Inter last season.
Real appears to have the same situation. Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria have started the majority of the games this season. Sami Khedira, Lass Diarra and Kaka have also received the starting nod at midfield at one point or another this season.
Although it's tough to find a weakness in Real's midfield, they haven't quite found what Inter had last season. That could in part be due to the fact that Real's midfield is young. Ozil and Di Maria are only 23 which is young to be shouldered with the burden of leading a team through the Champions League.
Granted, Sneijder was able to do so at 25 last season, but he was also surrounded by Cambiasso (30 years old) and Zanetti (36 years old). Those two players were seasoned veterans who were able to control the midfield and possession so Sneijder could orchestrate the attack.
Real has quality talent at the midfield, but Mourinho doesn't have a seasoned veteran or leader at midfield. Real fans thought they had their veteran and leader in Kaka, but he has been injured this season and hasn't lived up to the expectations when he has been in form.
On a talent level, last season's Inter has the edge over Real this season. But not so great of a disparity that the right combination by Mourinho couldn't make up the difference.
But you can't create or improve a players age and experience; that just comes with time. Last season Mourinho had age and experience at midfield, and it worked to his and Inter's benefit.
This season he doesn't have it with Real, and it will be interesting to see if it even matters or if Mourinho can inspire his young players to win despite the lack of experience.
Last season Inter had Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito. The good part about those two strikers was they were both capable of scoring. If Eto'o wasn't scoring, Milito was able to assume the scoring duties. This season Eto'o has been unstoppable in the Champions League. Last season however, it was Milito who was the leading scorer for Inter, including scoring both goals in the finals.
Real on the other hand doesn't have a dual scoring threat. Last season they had Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo who both were capable scorers. Both required the attention of the defense. But like Inter, if one was unable to score or having an off night, then the other was able to pick up the slack.
Since the loss of Higuain this season, Ronaldo has had to shoulder the scoring burden. Other players have contributed, but no one player has stepped up to create a viable and consistent scoring option. Karim Benzema has been streaky at best. It is yet to be determined if Emmanuel Adebayor will contribute. He has proven in the past he is capable of being a legit scoring threat, but it is unclear if that is just a thing of the past.
With Inter last season Mourinho had two viable scoring options. Right now with Real, he really only has one. As great as Ronaldo has been, even the best players have off nights, especially when they are playing some of the best clubs in Europe.
Real has plenty of players that can step up and contribute to the scoring, but they can't make a run like Inter if no one does.
One wouldn't think home field advantage would be as big of a deal in soccer considering the field is the same size no matter the stadium. But the away goals and performance makes or breaks a team in the Champions League knockout rounds.
The ability to go into another stadium and get a goal is huge and sets apart the true contenders. At the same time, the ability for a defense to shut down an opposing team on the road is also crucial to a championship team. All good teams know how to not only win at home but also go on the road and win or at least walk away with a draw.
In La Liga, Real's defense has struggled on the road this season. They have conceded over twice as many goals when they are away as they have at home. They have not proven to have the ability to stop other teams on the road. Granted, they have still won many of those games, but that is because their offense is superior to the other team's defense.
In the Champions League when they are facing premier clubs, their offense may not be able to score as easily as it can against lesser teams in La Liga. It will be imperative for their defense to stop teams as it is no guarantee their offense will be able to score. But as mentioned, their defense has yet to prove that on the road they are able to prevent opposing teams from scoring.
Inter's defense last season was pretty consistent when on the road. Their defense only allowed four more goals on the road than they did at home. This turned out to be crucial because their offense scored nine less goals on the road than they did at home, which is the case with most teams. It is usually more difficult to score on the road, and thus your defense must be able to compensate on the road for the lack of defense.
Real's defense has yet to prove they can stop other teams on the road as well as they can at home. Like Inter, they will need to do so if they want to win.
Inter had chemistry last season. It's hard to define team chemistry, and ironically, there isn't an exact formula team's can follow in order to obtain team chemistry. A team either has it or they don't and you can always tell when they do.
For instance, if someone watched a Barcelona or Arsenal game, they would likely conclude the teams have chemistry. It is easy to see that all players understand their objective, understand each other and work well with each other.
Conversely, if anyone watched Chelsea play over the past couple of games, they would likely conclude something was missing, and they don't have chemistry or at least had a lot less than Barcelona or Arsenal.
I'm not saying Real Madrid doesn't have chemistry. They are beginning to gel as a unit, and Mourinho is helping them get on the same page.
But anyone watching Inter last year could see their team chemistry. They played as a unit and understood each other. On paper, they weren't necessarily the best team. Yet they went in and beat two other teams - Chelsea and Barcelona - that were considered by many to be superior teams.
On paper, Real is considered one of the best teams in Europe. Yet the past few seasons they have faltered. Is their chemistry as good as Inter's last season? No.
But fortunately for Real, they aren't far off. Ideally, as the rounds and the season progresses and as they are able to win they will be able to find more chemistry and gel as a unit. It's the only way they will be able to beat some of the teams remaining in the competition.
Although surely Ronaldo would like to beat other teams on his own without the assistance of the other 10 players, he will need the entire team in order to win. Speaking of Ronaldo...
Every team has a leader. As much as a team needs to play as a unit, it also need a leader.
Last year, Wesley Sneijder was Inter's leader. And like all great leaders, he made everyone around him better. The team understood he was the inspiration and he was orchestrating the team and was the key to their offense.
At the same time, everyone understands Cristiano Ronaldo is Real's leader. The issue is just whether he can make the everyone around him better.
In the past when Real has struggled, instead of relying on his teammates, Ronaldo has tried to win on his own and individually carry Real to victory. He starts to shoot more and doesn't pass or share the ball as much. He was rarely successful.
Interestingly enough however, this season when Higuain went down due to injury, Ronaldo stepped up and has almost individually carried the team. Other players of course contributed but few, and none consistently, have contributed to the scoring. Ronaldo has been the bulk of Real's offense and thus far Real has been successful.
In Sneijder, Mourinho had a leader on the field, but everyone knew Mourinho was the ultimate leader of the team.
Few coaches seem to have been able to control the many egos that have filled Real Madrid's roster over the past decade. While there has always been a coach on the sidelines, it often appeared some of the players didn't respect or follow his direction.
Mourinho on the other hand appears to have complete control and direction over Real Madrid at the moment. It helps that he brings a history of winning and has a bigger ego than any other player. But his reputation and attitude is necessary to control a player like Ronaldo and allow Mourinho to control the team's direction.
In Ronaldo, Mourinho has a world class talent but a questionable leader. However, Ronaldo is already a different player this season than he was last season. He isn't as selfish and is slowly relying on fellow players to contribute to his and Real's success.
If Mourinho can convert Ronaldo into a true leader where Ronaldo makes the other players on his team better and wants team and not individual glory, then Real very well could become the favorites in the Champions League and replicate Inter's success from last season.