From Ronaldo to Real: A guide to this season’s Champions League

Since last winning the competition in 1996, few clubs have endured Champions League heartbreak quite like Juventus.

In the two years after that penalty shootout victory against Ajax, The Old Lady went on to lose successive finals against Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.

Its luck hasn’t changed in the intervening two decades, losing three further finals (2003, 2015, 2017) to reach an unwanted tally of five consecutive final defeats.

The run has left Juventus fans wondering if they’ll ever see their team lift that famous trophy again, while the feeling persists that the Bianconeri have underachieved in Europe’s top competition.

Now, the pressure of trying to break this wretched run has seemingly fallen almost entirely on the shoulders of Juve’s new superstar: Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Portuguese forward last season helped Real Madrid to an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League win, taking his total tally to five.

If there is one player with the big-game experience and match-winning ability to take an already star-studded Juve side one step further, it’s Ronaldo.

The 33-year-old directly contributed to 50% of Real Madrid’s Champions League goals between 2009-10 and 2017-18, coming top of the goalscorer charts in each of the last six seasons — surely Los Blancos’ loss must be Juventus’ gain.

Real Madrid weaker?

Before Real Madrid won three straight Champions League titles, no club had even managed to win the competition back-to-back in its current format.

While Ronaldo was central to this success on the pitch — developing the unerring habit of scoring the biggest of goals in the most vital of moments — coach Zinedine Zidane was pulling the strings from the side.

Both have since departed, with Zidane quitting just days after leading them to that third Champions League crown and suggesting the team needed a fresh voice to lead them forward.

That voice has come in the form of Julen Lopetegui, the coach unceremoniously dumped by the Spanish FA just days before its opening World Cup match at Russia 2018.

With the re-signing of 25-year-old Mariano Diaz from Lyon, Real Madrid’s only incoming transfer this summer, many were left wondering how it would fill that Ronaldo-shaped void.

But Lopetegui has added an element of control to Real’s already scintillating counter-attacking style, with Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale especially flourishing in the Portuguese’s absence.

English drought

An English team contesting the final of the Champions League was once a regular occurrence.

From 2005 to 2012, seven of the eight finals featured a team from the Premier League, including 2008’s all-English affair between Manchester United and Chelsea.

But Liverpool’s appearance against Real Madrid last season was the first time an English club had made it to the final for six years, a barren run symptomatic of the drop in quality of the Premier League.

In their place, Spanish teams have dominated with Real and Barcelona winning the previous four between them and Atletico Madrid also appearing in two finals.

Though with many labeling this season’s competition the most open Champions League in years, could the likes of Manchester City of Liverpool bring the trophy back to England?

Pep Guardiola’s side — which fell short against Liverpool in the quarterfinals last season — are the early bookies’ favorites, while Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have made several quality additions to its ranks along with the experience gained from last year’s run.

New format

In an attempt to boost viewing figures across the world, UEFA has taken the decision to split matches between two kick-off times this season.

Instead of the usual 7:45pm (BST) kick-off for all group stage games — with the exception of matches played in Russia and Azerbaijan — two matches will start at 5:55pm and the rest at 8pm.

For fans in Asia and Australia, in particular, it will mean at least one game might be on at a reasonable enough hour before an early start for work the next morning.

The new format will run until the 2020/21 season when UEFA will conduct a review of its success.