The Best Team in Europe? – UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group C

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.

Atalanta 

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. 

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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.

Dinamo Zagreb

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. 

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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 

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. 

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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 Donetsk

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. 

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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.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group F

While Group B and C are seen as the groups of death, this group comes incredibly close. 3 teams in this group are similar, yet so different and it will be interesting

Hoffenheim

Hoffenheim are a side that have been getting weaker by the season. But because of an extremely talented coach, have somehow stayed competitive. Even after losing some great players, like Gnabry, Uth, Sule, Rudy and Wagner. Hoffenheim play a brand of football that works to their strengths. They tend to not dominate games and use the little possession they have to quickly counter. Just by the way they play, it means they will able to challenge any team. But one of their issues (as mentioned before when discussing their game against Bayern Munich) is the way they set up leaves them weak on the flanks. Their full backs, usually Schulz and Kaderabek, go very far forward to press. The problem, as seen against Bayern, was the wingers were able to exploit the space that was left, which pulled the centre halves away and left them weak. When their press works, it works so well, but against teams which great wide players, it is difficult. They will do fine against Shaktar, but will struggle against the other sides. They also are suffering from a severe injury crisis. Two of their creators, Demibray and Amiri, are currently on the sidelines, as well as three of their central defenders. It will be difficult to get through with their current injury crisis, so I think they will finish bottom of the group.

Manchester City

The Premier League champions are probably facing and even tougher challenge than last season. They have to try and retain the title, while also trying to compete in the Champions League. City have started the season very well, with only a draw against newly promoted Wolves (a game that the referees ruined) stopping their perfect run. They haven’t been as good as they were last season however. They are seriously missing Kevin De Bruyne in some moments this season. His ability to pick out that killer pass has been seriously missed. While Gundogan is a good footballer, he is just not at the same level as De Bruyne. While City will still cruise through some of the easier games, it’s the games against teams who are similar to their level, like Paris or Barcelona, they will struggle to break them down. But one area they will never struggle in is their wide talent. Both Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are coming off good games against Fulham. They are excellent wingers for a Pep side. Both are incredibly fast, great at stretching the play and always put in good shot numbers. They will both cause the opposition so much problems. City just have a great squad of players, and players all over the pitch to challenge for places. Pep has built a great team, and will definitely get out of the group.

Lyon

As seen from my Top 5 Talking Points From the Top 5 Leagues, Lyon have been quite frustrating so far. They have shown moments of their best, but then go on to lose games they should probably be winning. They just haven’t been putting teams away. Depay, Fekir and Dembele just haven’t been clinical enough in front of goal. They’ve been averaging around 20 shots a game, yet are only managing 1.6 goals per game. They’re dominating games so comfortably, yet just fail to punish teams. This is team is just so talented and young as well. Their midfield of Tousart, Aouar and Ndombele are some of the most promising midfielders in Europe. Ferland Mendy has started the season in excellent form. He’s already got a goal and assist, and while his defensive numbers are low, he counters that with excellent attacking output. It could be argued that their manager, Bruno Génésio, isn’t exactly the best. While I do not think they set up their defense in a great way, they attack so fluently and quick that he almost makes up for it. I just do not think Lyon are getting out of this group. With their league form so inconsistent, they should be focusing on that, but they still have the quality to get out of it.

Shaktar Donetsk

A regular in this competition in the modern game, the Ukrainian side are back again. While they have lost two good players in Fred and Bernard, they have brought in replacements in the same way they always do. They signed Maycon from Corinthians and Fernando from Palmeiras. Both are under 21 and are currently getting bedded into the squad slowly. Shaktar’s knowledge of the Brazilian league is already known to be deep. They have brought so many Brazilians, like Willian, Fernandinho, Texeira and Fred into the European spotlight. Even with both of those young coming through, they still have their experience. Taison and Marlos both offer flair and cause full backs plenty of problems. Another one of their new signings, Moraes, has hit the ground running. The Brazilian was signed on a free from rivals Dynamo Kyiv, and has already scored 7 in 8. It would make more sense to predict Lyon or Hoffenheim to finish second, but Shaktar Donetsk are in this competition all the time. They have the experience and the talent to beat all teams in this group. They even got out of a group containing Napoli and Man City last season, and even beat the Premier League champions. They will get out of this group, but I could most definitely be wrong.

Final Table

1. Manchester City

2. Shaktar Donetsk

3. Lyon

4. Hoffenheim