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September 24, 2017

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Ronaldo to the rescue for Madrid as Champions League defence begins

BARCELONA - Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Real Madrid's first team on Wednesday night against Apoel Nicosia and he will do so with his popularity among the club's supporters at an all-time high.

It has not always been that way for the 32-year-old. Despite being the club's all-time top scorer he has had to suffer the occasional whistle inside the Santiago Bernabeu and he has never been shy about calling out the critics.

But Real Madrid have missed him while he has been away. Two home draws have seen them fall to four points behind Barcelona after only three games.

They have lacked the reliable finishing and they have missed the urgency that he tends to instil in those around him.

His reputation among supporters has also been enhanced by the perceived injustices that have befallen him.

The five-game ban for a red card picked up for celebrating a goal with his shirt off at the Nou Camp in Real Madrid's emphatic 3-1 first leg Spanish Super Cup win and the subsequent push on the referee, earned him plenty of sympathy. And there are even those who have taken his side in the current tax case against him.

All in all, becoming the victim and not being around to score all the goals has increased his popularity more than ever.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has certainly missed him. He spoke about the need to be more effective in front of goal after Saturday's 1-1 draw with Levante.

Ronaldo has scored 106 goals in 144 games in this competition, more than anyone else, and he will be expected to feast on Cyprus champions Apoel's defence. They should be the weakest link in Group H.

Gareth Bale will welcome Ronaldo's return and the prospect of the spotlight swinging back away from him.

He will also have fond memories of playing against the Spanish defender Jesus Rueda who will be at the heart of the minnows' defence.

The last time Bale faced Rueda was in a Spanish league game and he scored a hat-trick as Real Madrid thrashed Rueda's then-club Real Valladolid 4-0 in 2013.

Real Madrid were full of confidence at the start of the season, thanks to a convincing 5-1 aggregate win in the Spanish Super Cup.

They were also buoyed by Barcelona's problems: losing Neymar and failing to sign Philippe Coutinho.

But events since then have conspired against them with two home draws and an injury to Karim Benzema that could deprive them of the French forward's services for the best part of a month.

That's another reason for being glad to see Ronaldo's return. He still has one more match of his domestic ban left to serve and will miss Sunday's visit to the current joint leaders of La Liga Real Sociedad.

There is no escape for Apoel however. They must deal with him if they are to take anything from their meeting with the current Champions of Europe.

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