Cristiano Ronaldo returns as Real Madrid pursue another UCL title

Real Madrid will begin their attempt to become the first club in more than four decades to win three consecutive Champions League trophies when they host Apoel Nicosia at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.

No team has won Europe's top club competition in three consecutive years since Bayern Munich lifted the trophy, then known as the European Cup, in 1974, 1975 and 1976. Madrid became the first repeat winner in the Champions League era, which began in 1992-93, when they defeated Juventus in the final in June.

This will be Madrid's 21st consecutive appearance in the Champions League -- the longest run of any club -- and their 22nd overall. Madrid have won the competition 12 times, including six titles since it was renamed in 1992, and have never failed to advance from the group stage.

The champions of La Liga last season, Madrid enter with an 87 percent chance of reaching the round of 16, according to ESPN's Soccer Power Index (SPI), and a 14 percent chance of winning the competition -- behind only Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Madrid enter Wednesday unbeaten in the last 22 group stage games they have played at the Bernabeu. They followed their last defeat, 3-2 to AC Milan on Oct. 21, 2009, with 20 victories and two draws -- both 2-2 against Borussia Dortmund, first on Nov. 6, 2012 and then on Sept. 27, 2016.

Should Madrid fail to defeat Apoel Nicosia, it would mark the first time they have not won three consecutive home games in all competitions since April 2011. Madrid have drawn their last two La Liga games, first against Valencia and then against Levante.

One player who should make a difference is Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be eligible to play for the first time since receiving a four-match ban for pushing a referee in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona last month.

Ronaldo -- whose ban only applies domestically, not to the Champions League, and has one game remaining -- has scored a record 105 goals in the competition in 140 games. His brace against Juventus in the final in June meant that he has been the top scorer in the Champions League each of the last five years.

Apoel Nicosia, who won Cyprus' first division for the fifth consecutive year last season, are making their first appearance in the group stage since 2014 and their fourth overall. Surprise quarterfinalists in 2011-12, they were knocked out in the final eight that year by Real Madrid on 8-2 aggregate.