| It’s all Madrid as the Champions League begins

Johannesburg – There’s something beautiful about the Real Madrid shirt for the 2018/19 Uefa Champions League season.

For starters, your eye is drawn to the golden badge on the top right hand corner, where the badge of honour for the current holders of the Fifa Club World Cup resides.

Then there’s the club’s actual logo on the left with its celebrated crown. But it’s the two badges on their sleeves that will separate the champions from the rest of Europe. On the right sleeve, Madrid players will sport the title-holder badge that is blueish in colour, with the outline of the Champions League trophy and this year inscribed within it. On the left sleeve, a similar badge will be worn with the number 13 fashioned within.

According to Uefa regulations, the title-holder must wear the first of those badges in every Champions League game, while, “subject to a licence being granted by Uefa”, only multiple winners of Europe’s most elite club competition may wear the other badge of honour.

If you’ve won it at least five times or three consecutive times – which Madrid have done twice – then you’re the real deal.

There are five other clubs that have earned that right – AC Milan, Ajax Amsterdam, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Liverpool.

But within this pantheon of European football, Madrid are certainly the most decorated club in the tournament’s history with their record of 13 European Cup titles, the most goals scored, the most wins accumulated, the most games played, and the only team to have defended and won the Champions League in three consecutive campaigns.

Bathed in conquerors’ glory, this unique kit will be on full display this week as the Champions League get underway.

Comprising of 32 teams from 16 countries, 125 matches will be played on the road to Madrid, Spain, where the final will take place at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on June 1.

As fate would have it Atletico, the winners of the Europa League for the third time, took on Real Madrid in the annual European football curtain raiser on August 15 in the Uefa Super Cup. Atletico had something to prove as they came out firing with a Diego Costa goal within the first minute of the game, the fastest goal in the cup’s 43-year history.

For Real, the face of the team changed completely in the off season as the colosseum that is the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, where 85 trophies have passed through the doors and pitch, lost not one but two galacticos – that of coach Zinedine Zidane and super striker Cristiano Ronaldo. And when giants leave, their presence is felt, or more accurately the lack of their presence is felt. So it was to be that Atletico would clinch the title 4-2 and keep their unblemished record in the Super Cup.

Diego Simeone’s team is one to watch out for this season – despite their lacklustre league start – boasting the likes of Costa, defender Diego Godin and World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann, who, according to his coach, should have been named the best player in the world. Under Simeone’s rule, the team has won two Europa titles and made it to two Champions League finals, losing both times to Real Madrid. But with rumours of Simeone’s departure to Italy and the fact that Atletico were knocked out of the past edition in the group stage, El Cholo will want to use his fiery demeanour to lift the coveted European title and complete the European treble to add to the Spanish treble he already has.

In the aftermath of the Super Cup, Simeone was confident “with the squad we have, if everyone is right, clearly we’ll have the chance to win trophies”.

It’s easy for Real to pass off this Super Cup loss as an unlucky break and that it’s not an important cup, but make no mistake, if Los Blancos had won this single-match trophy, it would have been paraded around like their shirt.

That was not the case, and Julen Lopetegui’s side seemed to lose steam and motivation as the match headed into extra time, a stark contrast to last season, where they rose to the occasion every time it seemed like all hope was lost.

Despite that €112 million (R1.9 billion) transfer and the loss of their talismanic coach, Real have kept the core of their team the same. With captain Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Marcelo still at the heart of the leadership core, controlling the set-up and driving the challenges, Real seem to be in capable hands. But can they handle the pressure?

Gareth Bale is now the new attacking head honcho after taking over as The Meringues’ most expensive player, while Karim Benzema has been scoring with such frequency that it beggars belief that he was left out of the French World Cup squad.

Real have played seven games since the two big-name departures and in every game, either Benzema or Bale have scored. They have also been drawn in one of the easiest groups this season.

Regardless, potshots have been fired regarding Real’s strength sans Ronaldo, including by Barcelona captain Lionel Messi, who said Real were now “less good”.

But Lopetegui’s team has silenced doubters in all but the Super Cup, even telling Messi to be careful: “I wouldn’t doubt these Real Madrid players for a second.”

But, as we are always told by those wise old uncles who have some knowledge of supporting clubs, it’s not about the players, it’s about the club.

If Real Madrid are to earn those badges again this season and keep that kit looking like it belongs in a hall of fame, they will have to call on all their experience and history, especially in the dying minutes of crucial games. However, without the calmness of Zidane and the persistent badgering of Ronaldo, that seems improbable.

A fall from grace isn’t pretty, but if it does happen this season, at least the most adorned club in European history will look like an honorary shooting star.

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