Before Tuesday's Champions League match against Olympique Lyonnais, Jose Mourinho stated that taking four points off the team that eliminated Real Madrid at the first knockout stage in 2009-10 "would be as good as qualifying for the next round."
Until Mourinho arrived in Madrid, Real had never beaten Lyon in European competition and the French team had become something of a bete noire for los Blancos. A 1-1 tie in the first leg of last season's round of 16 encounter between the two set pulses racing in the Spanish capital as the specter of crashing out of the Champions League early for the sixth consecutive year loomed large over the Bernabeu. However, Mourinho engineered a 3-0 win in Madrid to see his side through and banished a big-match malaise that had started to permeate through to the very fiber of Real's soul in continental action.
This season there has been no such concern as Real has cut a swathe through its group -- albeit a fairly accommodating one -- scoring eight times and conceding none in three games to sit comfortably at the top of the table with nine points to Ajax's and Lyon's four apiece. Following Tuesday's 4-0 drubbing of the French side, a win in Lyon in November would mathematically send Real through to the next round and there is little to suggest that it will not be forthcoming. The team that won Ligue 1 seven times in a row between 2002 and 2008 is a shadow of its former self, having been shorn of many of its stars and now heavily reliant on youth players. Its two shining lights, Lisandro Lopez and Yoann Gourcuff, have both been sidelined with injury this season and there's a lack of quality players around them.
At Real, quite the opposite is true. Mourinho, when quizzed about the prospect of starting both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain against Lyon, remained circumspect. The Argentinean forward has scored nine goals in his past three games for club and country and Benzema, purchased from Lyon in the summer of 2009, has won the confidence of his coach on the back of a string of outstanding displays in the absence of Higuain. "It's a good moment for both of them," the Portuguese said ahead of the match. "We can play both of them, or one of them, or leave them both on the bench and play other forwards."
One of those other forwards is Kaka, whose own return to form has been welcomed by Mourinho and a newly enamored Bernabeu faithful. During the recent international break, the Brazilian trained every day with the youth team and won the praise of Mourinho, who had given his rejuvenated No. 8 four consecutive starts before the Lyon match.
It seems that everything is clicking into place for Real, so much so that Cristiano Ronaldo's relative goal drought has not hampered its recent scoring form. Mourinho held a team meeting a few weeks ago to iron out any problems among players with their feathers ruffled by a lack of field time. "They know only 11 can play," was the message transmitted by the Portuguese. Portentously, Mourinho also said that the team's expectations "are to be stronger than last year. Teams improve with work but it will be difficult."
Against Lyon, Mourinho's Real made the challenges ahead look very easy indeed.