Having landed their first Liga championship in four years with figures that beggared belief, Real Madrid CF set their ambitions on winning a tenth European Cup. Although ultimately passing the stern test of a group containing three other domestic champions, the Merengues were left with the feeling of finishing second to German opponents for the second time in just over six months.
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Chasing a record 16th straight appearance in the UEFA Champions League knockout phase, last year's semi-finalists' perseverance and resolve was examined far more this season than in their two previous group stage campaigns under José Mourinho. A couple of straightforward 4-1 victories over AFC Ajax aside, Madrid did enough to help usher Manchester City FC out of the tournament while a draw and a defeat against Borussia Dortmund – eventual winners of a group Mourinho described as "no joke" – served to highlight flaws within his team that the Portuguese tactician has been keen to correct.
After going 2-1 behind to Manchester City with five minutes left in a game they largely dominated, Madrid appeared destined to lose an opening European Cup encounter at the Santiago Bernabéu for the first time in their history. A subsequent Karim Benzema equaliser brought relief to the home crowd, however, before Cristiano Ronaldo's 90th-minute winner almost brought the house down and gave the hosts a vital victory – their 100th in the UEFA Champions League – on the road to the knockout stages.
The only Madrid player to have featured in every minute of their Group D programme, Ronaldo has again proved a key component in one of Europe's most fearsome counterattacking sides – the 27-year-old's power, pace and close control a constant threat to opposition defences. With more attempts on target than any other player in the group stage, it is no surprise the former Sporting Clube de Portugal and Manchester United FC forward is the tournament's joint-top scorer with six goals from six games.
An unexpected starter at home to City on matchday one, France Under-21 defender Raphaël Varane went on to make four further appearances in Group D. Predicted to take time to settle in the Spanish capital following his €10m move from RC Lens in June 2011, the 19-year-old gained the trust of his coach with several assured performances in central defence and has played an important part this term in a back four disrupted by injuries to Marcelo, Fábio Coentrão, Raúl Albiol and Álvaro Arbeloa.
Ronaldo's 38th-minute equaliser cancelled out Robert Lewandowski's strike in the matchday three encounter at Dortmund but Marcel Schmelzer's ensuing winner meant the Portuguese international finished on the losing side for the first time after scoring in the UEFA Champions League.
"Twice I have finished second in the group and gone on to win the tournament. The teams that finished first will be waiting for an opponent they think may be easier, but if they get Real Madrid that is not good news for them."
José Mourinho sounds a warning to Madrid's prospective round of 16 rivals
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