Real Madrid will look to begin the defence of their Champions League title with a bang when they host APOEL Nicosia on Wednesday

Matchday 1 of the latest edition of the UEFA Champions League comes to an end on Wednesday. In Group H, Real Madrid, bidding for a historic three-peat, will kick off the defence of their title when they play hosts to Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia at Santiago Bernabeu.

The hosts made history in June when they became the first side to defend their Champions League crown, two weeks after lifting the La Liga title. Their form at the start of the 2017-18 season though, has been quite erratic, with two draws and a win leaving them four points behind bitter rivals Barcelona.

APOEL, on the other hand, won the Cypriot league last season, but had to go through three qualifying stages to progress to the group stage. George Donis’ men come into the match on the back of a win in their opening match of the season, a comfortable 4-1 victory away at Nea Salamis.

The two sides have previously met just twice, in the quarterfinals of the 2011-12 edition, with Real Madrid winning both legs by an aggregate scoreline of 8-2. Ahead of their latest meeting on Wednesday, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the encounter.

Team News & Tactics

Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane has a few injury concerns on his hands ahead of their Champions League curtain raiser on Wednesday. The Real Madrid boss could have as many as four key first-team player unavailable due to fitness issues, although Cristiano Ronaldo is set to return to action.

The Portuguese superstar is yet to feature in La Liga for Los Blancos this season, after he was slapped with a five-match ban during the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. While he is yet to serve the last of his suspension, the ban is only for domestic competitions, meaning he is available for selection in Europe.

However, Zidane will be without first-choice striker Karim Benzema, who sustained a hamstring injury in the match against Levante on the weekend. The French striker is expected to be out for at least a month.

Meanwhile, Keylor Navas, Raphael Varane and Marco Asensio are doubtful for Wednesday’s match. Navas missed the match against Levante due to a lack of match fitness as well, while Varane is likely to be unavailable for one more outing after only rejoining training on Monday following recover from an abductor injury.

Asensio’s participation, though, is in heavy doubt after he missed training due to unknown reasons. In his absence, the Real Madrid boss does have a slight shortage of options in attack beyond Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, with Lucas Vazquez the only other recognised choice.

Possible Starting XI (4-4-2 Diamond): Casilla; Carvajal, Ramos, Nacho, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos, Isco; Bale, Ronaldo

Real Madrid

APOEL Nicosia

Like his counterpart in the Real Madrid dugout, George Donis, too has a few pressing fitness issues to deal with. In fact, the APOEL manager is set to be without three of his key first-team players ahead of the trip to the Bernabeu on Wednesday.

Midfielders Georgios Efrem and Facundo Bertoglio, as well as right-back Zhivko Milanov are unavailable due to their respective injuries, and are expected to remain sidelined for the foreseeable future for the Cypriot champions.

The key men for Donis, meanwhile, will be club captain Nuno Morais and Vinicius – two men who will have to be at the top of their game to stifle the creative powers of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos at the centre of the park.

Possible Starting XI (4-3-3): Waterman; Vouros, Carlao, Rueda, Lago; Vinicius, Morais, Farias; Ebecilio, De Camargo, Aloneftis

APOEL

Key Stats

  • The two sides have previously met on two occasions, with Real Madrid winning both the encounters by an aggregate scoreline of 8-2.
  • Over their last two campaigns in the UEFA Champions League, Real Madrid have won 11 of their 12 home games.
  • In contrast, APOEL have managed to win just two of their last 12 away games in Europe’s premier club competition (D3 L7).
  • In 21 previous participations in the UEFA Champions League, Madrid have never failed to progress to the last 16.
  • APOEL are in the group stage for a fourth time, having previously qualified in 2009/10, 2011/12 and 2014/15.

Player To Watch

Cristiano Ronaldo

Set to unleash fury? (Photo courtesy - Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

Set to unleash fury? (Photo courtesy – Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2017-18 season has started on an unusual note for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is yet to feature for Real Madrid in La Liga due to a five-game domestic ban. Having been forced to spend an extended spell on the sidelines, Zinedine Zidane has pointed out that there is a lot of pent up aggression that his star man is waiting to unleash.

Set to be unshackled on Wednesday, APOEL will be the first side to bear the brunt of the Portugese forward’s potential onslaught. Based on his form in the recent international break, Ronaldo is likely to be a man on fire on Wednesday, and it won’t be a surprise if he goes on to nab more than one goal for himself.

Prediction

Real Madrid 4-1 APOEL Nicosia

Following a historic campaign in the 2016-17 season, Real Madrid are looking to make more history this season, starting their bid for an unprecedented Champions League three-peat against Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia.

APOEL boast one of the biggest shock success stories in the Champions League, progressing through the group stage of the 2011-12 edition, before beating Lyon to set up a quarterfinals date with Real Madrid. But this time around, they are expected to be the whipping boys in a group with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham.

In fact, just like their campaign in the aforementioned season, Los Blancos should be too big a wall for the Cypriot side to surmount. With a frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo set to be unleashed Wednesday could be a long night for George Donis’ men. The Hard Tackle predicts a comfortable 4-1 win for the hosts.