This year's Champions League group stages have provided a grouping of teams worthy of the tournament's name.
The Engish, Spanish, Dutch and German champions have been drawn together in a mouthwatering group D. The result is that we will be spared the pre-determined outcome of so many group stages in the past, and are due an array of thrilling games in the battle to emerge from this year's group of death.
Manchester City, Ajax, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund will not have the luxury of a pedestrain route to the last sixteen of the competition that is so often bestowed upon bigger clubs.
Manchester City and Real Madrid carry a common weight upon their shoulders going into this year's competition. Both dethroned their most bitter rivals by winning their respective domestic leagues last season, yet both failed to achieve what was expected of them in Europe. City were a surprise group stage casualty while Madrid fell at the semi-final stage while many expected their victory in the final an inevitability.
Considering it is in Europe that their most hated rivals, Manchester United and Barcelona, have so often found glory in recent years then it is understandable that Manchester City and Real Madrid will find domestic success can only go so far. There is significantly more needed to justify squads that have been assembled for amounts greater than the GDP of some small nations.
Champions league success is a necessity on the road to becoming a great team, there is no diversion a team can take, no amount of domestic glory that can replace the void left by a trophy cabinet bereft of the biggest prize in world football. If you want to be great, and be remembered as such, then you need the Champions League winners medal.
Madrid have won the competition more than anyone else, a record nine times, but this current squad have yet to win club football's biggest prize. They have watched Messi's Barcelona lift the trophy twice in the last four years and they have sat idly by as the plaudits rained down on the Catalans. All the while the topic of Real Madrid, and Ronaldo's, true standing in the annals of football history remains very much up for debate until they march to at least one Champion League.
The Champions League is Madrid's aim, make no mistake about it, and another La Liga title will be scant consolation if this collection of incredible footballers once again fail to leave their mark on Europe as indelibly as Barcelona have done in recent years. They will need to be at their best, and improve significantly on their, so far poor , league form as anything less than excellence can be quickly punished by all three of their opponents.
Borussia Dortmund may have lost Shinji Kagawa, the skillful Japanese playmaker, to Man Utd but the core of their league and cup wining side remains. Jose Mourinho has highlighted the German champions as the biggest danger in the group. Considering that this Dortmund side eased to their second consecutive Bundesliga title last year, by an eight point margin over Champions League finalists Bayern Munich, should suggest that Mourinho's fear of the Germans is justified. Chances are the Bundesliga could be a two horse race this year, with Dortmund and Bayern going neck and neck from start to finish.Bayern beat City and Madrid last year, and Dortmund beat Bayern. Dortmund won't be scared of anyone they face.
If Dortmund can take advantage of their magnificent, and intimidating, home ground- the Westfalenstadion, then they can hope to take five to seven points from their home games. Staying undefeated there is essential and if they can get the points at home then they will stand a real chance of going through. In a group sure to be as tight as this one home form could prove to be the difference. That could be Dortmund's key to the knockout stages.
Ajax have a European history second only to Madrid in group D, having lifted the trophy four times in the past. However, the Ajax of 2012 is far removed from the great side of the 70s and the side of 1995 which brimmed with homegrown talent before being decimated by the introduction of the Bosman ruling. The Dutch champions will expected to finish at the foot of the group table, however they will not offer the gift of maximum points usually expected of the weakest teams in the group stages. Trips to the Amsterdam Arena will be tough assignments for their opponents and the Dutch club can expect to pick up a couple of results at home.
They have lost core elements from last season's title winning side, with captain Jan Vertonghen and Dutch internationals Gregroy Van Der Wiel and Vurnon Anita leaving over the summer. Ajax are a club which faces the perennial challenge of squad rebuilding following the sale of key players, however the retention of Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen means Ajax have a player that would comfortbaly fit into any of the stronger squads in the group. Along with new signings Christian Poulsen and Tobias Sana Ajax have gone some way to restrengthening their side.
Sana is considered a great prospect in his native Sweden and the tricky winger has made a good start to his career in Holland. If he can carry that form on to the grandest stage there could be hope for the Dutch champions but with such a stern test awaiting them there would be ample reason for pride in finishing in third position and continuing their European adventure in the Europa League.
Manchester City find themselves in a somewhat similar position as Real Madrid. Last May found them crowned champions of their domestic league but their efforts in Europe were far below the level expected of such an expensively assembled squad as they went out in the group stage.
Roberto Mancini's side dispelled any doubts over their mental strength or team spirit (the unquantifiable, unbuyable qualities- apparently) with an incredible recovery in the late stages of last season, including the incredible spectacle of the final moments at the Eithad Stadium. When Sergio Aguerro's league winning strike went in Manchester City barged their way through to the exclusive champions section of the football house. Now their challenge is proving they belong there.
The likelihood is they will be even better this year. Sergio Aguerro enjoyed a debut season that exceeded even the loftiest of expectations and with Carlos Tevez now seemingly content with life and football in Manchester the Citizens will expect a strike force which can surpass the free scoring, clinical unit they were last year.
The unbridled spending of previous summers was not seen this year and this should stand City in good stead. There was no major need for squad strengthening but rather a need for consistency and growth as a team and playing unit. The experience of winning the league in such dramatic fashion, when they had been comprehensively written off, will provide them with a mental strength, self belief and thirst for battle at the highest level that can provide them with the extra ingredients required to move into Europe's top tier. If the huge investment in City is to be equalled on the field then those elements will need to be present in large quantities as they face the huge task of bettering last year's disappointing European campaign.
City's right to claim elite status will be tested immediately as they travel to the Bernabeu on Spetmeber 19th to face Spanish champions Real Madrid in their opening group game. If City feel this is where they belong (and that is certainly true of players such as Kompany, Aguerro, Hart, Toure and Silva) then they must seize their opportunity at the first go. In a group as densely stacked with top class teams there will be no room for second chances.