Arguably one of the least competitive groups in the competition. It’s undeniable who will top the group, but that second place is still very much up for grabs.
After missing out from a playoff defeat back in 2017, Italy’s new hipster club are finally making their first appearance in the Champions League, and they fully deserve it. Atalanta have been one of the best sides in Italy for the past 3 years, credited for their attacking football and the value they’ve managed to uncover from a wide variety of talent. Back in the 2016/17 season, they were also famed for the young players they were producing. The likes of Franck Kessie, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti and Bryan Cristante all flourishing at the club. Atalanta seemed like the breeding ground for both Italy and Europe’s next generation of footballers, with the 4 players mentioned now playing for Italy’s more established big clubs.
What last season did show was not only how Atalanta should now be considered one of Italy’s most dangerous sides, but just how they are doing that. Instead of focusing on young talent, their primary focus seems to be getting the best out of players who were written off by other clubs. This ability at finding value in the market made their 3rd place finish, with the best attack in the Serie A, even more impressive. Their front three revolves around Duvan Zapata, Papu Gomez and Josep Illicic. The trio are all over 28 and were brought in for a combined £22.05 million, some of the best value for money you’ll see. Gomez and Illicic play as inverted playmakers, given free roles to create for Zapata, as well as score themselves. While Gomez adds that unpredictability and skill to forward line, Zapata was by far their best performer last season. I can’t stress enough just how good his teammates were at creating chances for the Colombian, but Zapata’s knack for shooting in generally good positions turned those chances into goals. A majority of his goals were coming from inside the six-yard area, whether from set-pieces or from open play. These players can cause any side in Europe a lot of problems, and I fully expect them to bring their A-game to the rest of the teams in their group.Embed from Getty Images
There is more to Atalanta than just their attack. In fact, their midfield has remained a force even with the departures of Kessie and Cristante. Remo Freuler and Martin De Roon combined to form a midfield pairing focused on winning the ball but remain adept at progressing it to their gifted attackers. De Roon’s massive defensive output does deserve praise, but Freuler is comfortably the best out of the pair. The Swiss midfield combines massive defensive actions of 4.4 tackles and interceptions alongside over 9 deep progressions, placing him in the top 10 in Serie A for progressions from deep. The pair cover the wide areas of the pitch so effectively that it has enabled their wing-backs to push up and give Atalanta width.
While I can expect Dinamo and Shakhtar to have a shot at escaping this group, La Dea is by far the favourites to finish 2nd. A great coach in Gasperini, the best attack in Italy, a solid midfield and marauding wing-backs, they could indeed turn the heads of many casual fans.
The Croatian side has garnered a reputation for producing some of their country’s best talent. Luka Modric, Matteo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic and Marko Rog all played and eventually departed to join some of Europe’s elite. Dinamo Zagreb’s production line earns more plaudits than the actual team, but the team do deserve some praise. Their performances in the Europa League last season were excellent, topping Group D and going undefeated in a group containing Fenerbahce and Anderlecht. A Round of 16 departure to Benfica is respectable enough, considering they managed to take the Liga NOS champions into extra-time. They brought the same impressive form to their qualification, easing past Rosenborg, Saburtalo and Ferencvaros. They’ve earned their place here and were always going to struggle to get out of the group based on Dinamo being in a low pot.Embed from Getty Images
Dinamo has a chance to get to the round of 16, but it rests on the form of Dani Olmo. The 21-year-old is a player who I have a lot of respect for, possessing the courage to leave La Masia at 16 and move to Croatia. It’s not a path you see Spanish players take, but joining Dinamo Zagreb must be a decision he doesn’t regret. It allowed him to start playing first-team football at a young age, enabling him to develop as a more refined player than you see from other players at his age. Olmo has primarily played as a winger but has recently moved inside, which is the best move for his future. He is calm under pressure and can dribble in wide areas. Playing him in a wider position does make sense when Olmo wasn’t fully developed as a man but has grown and increased in muscle, making him even more challenging to dispossess. Last season in the Europa League group stages, Olmo completed 19 dribbles, more than any other player in the competition. He isn’t just the best player in Croatia but is at the level where he could start for an established Champions League club. The young midfielder has a varied skill set, being an excellent dribbler while also being one of the most prominent distributors in the Dinamo side, with no other outfield player completing more than his 33 passes per game in the Europa League. He is everything for Dinamo in the attack, and his form could decide their outcome in this year’s competition.
Manchester City is placed in a group where their chances of losing or near the land of impossibility. It’s hard to argue against Pep’s side is the best in Europe. They boast the best forward line, some of the best creators and one of the best goalkeepers. Not only that, but they are managed by one of the best managers the game has ever seen. Many like to lambast Guardiola for the money spent on fixing this side, but you can’t argue just how much better a lot of these players have become since moving to the Etihad. De Bruyne is now one of the top 5 players in Europe, Bernardo Silva is far more than just a good winger, and Sterling has been completely transformed. This Manchester City side is the best the Premier League has ever seen and is likely to retain the title once again.
Man City already had the best team in Europe but went about improving the only weak areas they possessed, by bringing in Angelino and Rodri to cover Zinchenko and Fernandinho respectively. Angelino is unlikely to start often in the league, but gives that needed depth for next to nothing, after Fabian Delph departed the club. Rodri was the addition that the champions required since 2017. City lack proper central midfielders. David Silva, Bernardo and De Bruyne play there, but they’re more like free-roaming 8’s. Gundogan and Fernandinho are all they had, so signing a successor to their Brazilian powerhouse was the most crucial signing in recent history, and they have nailed it with the Rodri’s arrival. While the Spaniard isn’t nearly as quick as Fernandinho, he has a vast range in passing and puts in a lot of defensive actions. At the moment, he isn’t as good as Fernandinho, based on the fact that the Brazilian can do everything in midfield. However, he is now 34. Pep has consistently evolved his defensive midfielders. Busquets was a fantastic passer and reader of the game, and one of the main reasons Barca have been so good in attack for over a decade. Arturo Vidal was different, being more of a box to box, aggressive ball-winner to help against sides like Dortmund under Tuchel. Fernandinho is similar to Vidal but could read the game on a higher level than the Chilean, sensing danger and stopping attacks through a well-timed tackle or a tactical foul. It’ll be interesting to see how Rodri grows into the role, but it’s hard to deny that Pep’s side is somehow even better than last season.Embed from Getty Images
Depth at centre-half is a slight issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Walker or Fernandinho fill in there until Laporte’s return, but City should ease through this group. This isn’t to say the teams in group C are weak, but City is that far ahead of the competition. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the elite clubs when the knock out stages arrive, but for now, this shouldn’t be much of a challenge for City.
Shakhtar, similar to Atalanta and Dinamo, have garnered reputable status as one of the best feeder clubs of Brazilian talent. Fred, Willian, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira are a handful of players who flourished in Ukraine, eventually moving on to star-studded leagues. Yet, Shakhtar’s reputation in Europe is pretty respectable, even with some glaring off the field problems, primarily down to tensions between Ukraine and Russia. They’ve been a mainstay in the Champions League since their first inclusion back in 2001, and have even gotten as far as the quarter-finals in 2011, losing to Pep’s Barcelona. They also managed to win the UEFA Cup back in 2009 and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2016. They have European pedigree and mostly kept their side from last season together, alongside some improvements. Yevhen Konoplyanka arrives after having a torrid end to his time at Schalke and could add some creativity and pace from the wide areas, with Taison and Marlos both 31.Embed from Getty Images
The Ukrainian side does have a chance of getting out of this group. They have started the season in perfect form under new coach Luis Castro, winning all 6 games. They are against a Dinamo side who are heavily reliant on a single player and an Atalanta team who have never played in the Champions League before. Shakhtar has performed well under more stringent circumstances, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them finish above their competition. That said, I do think they will finish in the Europa League spot. Their best players are now another year older, and I’m unsure how long they can keep performing in Europe. They’ll perform well, but it won’t be enough against two sides, who in Atalanta and Manchester City, have a more talented group of players and better coaches.