Real remain among favourites in Europe

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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo will be gunning for another title. AFP

MADRID (AFP) – Such is Real Madrid’s confidence in creating more Champions League history that while others have spent hundreds of millions trying to catch up, the back-to-back European champions were happy to cash in.

Real made a profit of over $90 million in the transfer market thanks to the departures of Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Danilo.

Yet they remain very much the side to beat as the Champions League returns and having ended a near three-decade long wait for a team to retain the trophy.

“We are the champions so everyone faces us with extra motivation,” warned former Real striker Emilio Butragueno, now the club’s director of institutional relations.

Madrid coped with that challenge admirably last season, dismissing Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus in the latter stages.

Their quest to become the first side since Bayern in the mid-seventies to win three in a row starts with a more modest test in the form of APOEL Nicosia at the Santiago Bernabeu tonight.

Tougher tasks lie in wait in the form of Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur in Group H.

Dortmund even beat Madrid to top spot in the group stage last season. But Real have mastered the art of saving their best for when the competition really gets going for the contenders in the knockout stages in the new year.

“We have a stupendous squad but this is a competition that takes you to the limit in all aspects,” added Butragueno. “You can have a big squad with all the resources, but when the moment of truth arrives you need to not have injuries, for your players to be in optimum form and have luck. There are so many factors.”

Real’s strength in depth was used intelligently by coach Zinedine Zidane to win the club’s first La Liga and European Cup double for 59 years last season.

It is also why one of the richest clubs in the world didn’t feel the need to go wild in a hyper-inflated transfer market following Neymar’s world record $264 million move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Instead, Real continued their policy of snapping up the best young talent in Spain in Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos to add to the likes of Isco and Marco Asensio.

Despite a slow start to their campaign in La Liga, Zidane already seems to be playing the long game this season.

The Frenchman rested a host of first-team regulars including Luka Modric, Isco and Gareth Bale on their return from international duty for a disappointing 1-1 draw against Levante on Saturday.

“I am not going to revolutionise what I want to do with this team due to one bad game,” Zidane insisted afterwards.

Real will be bolstered for the visit of the Cypriot champions in midweek by the return of Cristiano Ronaldo.

The World Player of the Year’s absence due to a five-game domestic ban for pushing a referee has exposed the one flaw in Real’s squad in a lack of back-up to Karim Benzema.

Having not replaced Morata, Bale was forced to act as an auxiliary striker against Levante after Benzema went off injured.

Yet even an enforced rest for Ronaldo could ultimately work in Real’s favour come the end of the campaign.

The Portuguese scored 10 goals from the quarter-finals on last season as Zidane’s rotation policy left him far fresher and freer of injuries than in previous years.

With a fit Ronaldo come the knockout stages, Real will remain the team to beat as the rest of Europe tries to end their hegemony.

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