Reigning Champions League winners Real Madrid opened up their title defence with a comfortable 3-0 victory over APOEL in Group H on Wednesday night at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo, playing in his first official match since the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup due to a five-match suspension, bagged a brace and Sergio Ramos added another goal in Los Blancos’ first step in the pursuit of a 13th European crown.
Real were far from their best on the night, but they really did not need to be against the Cypriots. The gulf in quality was evident throughout and it allowed Real the chance to resume their winning ways after having stumbled to draws in their last two LaLiga outings.
Injuries to Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio forced manager Zinedine Zidane to reshuffle his starting XI in the form of a 4-4-2 with Gareth Bale and Ronaldo starting up top. The midfield also saw some changes; Toni Kroos was rested, meaning Mateo Kovacic, Casemiro and Isco patrolled the centre of the pitch, while in defence Nacho was slotted ahead of Raphael Varane at centre-back.
It took just a few minutes for Ronaldo to shake off any rust, as he fired Real to an early 1-0 lead. Isco led a counter-attack into the APOEL half before dishing to his left to Bale, who then slid a perfectly weighted pass back to the far post where Ronaldo was stationed, and the Portuguese finished with aplomb for the score.
It wasn’t all roses for Real though, as Kovacic was forced to leave prematurely with an injury and was later replaced by Kroos. Also, complicating matters was that APOEL kept the Real defence on their toes; the Cypriots were intent on taking the match to Los Blancos and utilised a very direct brand of football.
Where the visitors did themselves no favours was inexplicably playing short when they had a set piece in the Real half. Each time it would ultimately end wastefully with a cheap giveaway and a Real counter-attack.
But at the other end Real endured their own struggles. There was no combination play from Zidane’s men and the APOEL defence did well to block or deflect any through balls into the area.
Real came out of the gates strong to start the second-half and just seconds in Ronaldo thought he had his second of the night when his volley off a Dani Carvajal cross looked to have hit the underside of the crossbar and then crossed the goal-line. But the goal-line official ruled otherwise and the call was confirmed by the goal-line technology in place.
Ronaldo did not have to wait long though to get another crack, as a Roberto Lago handball in the area gifted Real a penalty. Up stepped the Portuguese and he calmly converted the spot kick for a 2-0 lead.
Moments later Ronaldo had an argument for another penalty when he was clipped by Lago in the area, but the referee thought otherwise and the resulting chance for Isco was blocked by APOEL goalkeeper Boy Waterman.
With the two-goal advantage, Real’s already comfortable night became increasingly easier. Another goal was to come, too. Instead of waiting for dramatic circumstances in second-half stoppage time, Ramos scored at a more conventional moment, just after the hour mark, when he biked in a deflected Bale header to extend the lead to 3-0.
Ronaldo was keen to take advantage of his playing time to nab a hat-trick, but it wasn’t in the cards for the superstar, as he was either denied by Waterman or scored from an offside position.
Nevertheless, the clean sheet victory will surely be a welcomed sign for Zidane after having conceded in their previous two contests.
Real resume league action on Sunday against Real Sociedad in San Sebastian.
– Match facts:
3.- Real Madrid: Keylor; Carvajal, Ramos, Nacho, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kovacic (Kroos, min. 25), Isco (Dani Ceballos, min. 72); Ronaldo, Bale (Borja Mayoral, min. 82).
0.- APOEL: Waterman; Vouros, Rueda, Carlao, Roberto Lago; Morais, Vinicius, Ebecilio (Zahid, min. 73), Sallai (Farias, min. 60), Aloneftis, De Camargo (Pote, min. 83).
Goals: 1-0, min. 12: Ronaldo; 2-0, min. 51: Ronaldo (p); 3-0, min. 61: Ramos
Referee: Benoit Bastien (France).
Yellow Cards: Carvajal (Min. 53) for Real Madrid, Sallai (Min. 53) for APOEL
Stadium: Santiago Bernabeu