Champions League Group C preview: Pool at the mercy of Man CityPublished on: September 7, 2019Author: Jamie Clark
There’s always the occasional easy-looking pool in European club football, and Man City benefit from this in UEFA Champions League Group C.
Pep Guardiola saw his side dominate domestic football in England last term. The Etihad outfit landed a historic Premier League, FA Cup and EFL Cup treble, yet the success they crave is on the continent.
While Liverpool pushed Man City close in the league, the Reds won the one trophy that has eluded them.
Guardiola – twice a European Cup winning coach with Barcelona – was brought to Manchester for Champions League glory. His fourth season at the club starts with him guarding against complacency.
Champions League Group C is very straightforward on paper and we won’t learn much from this pool in terms of Man City credentials for going all the way.
Ukrainian Premier League winners Shakhtar Donetsk are well known to Guardiola and co.
Man City have faced them in both of the last two Champions League group stages and won three of four previous encounters – the sole defeat came in a dead rubber.
If that Eastern European opposition holds no fears for Guardiola, then neither should Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb.
The most interesting games in the pool are against first-time Italian qualifiers Atalanta, who finished third in Serie A last term.
In this latest article, OpenOdds experts take the 2019 Champions League group stage pool by pool.
Besides looking at the main contenders, we assess changes made to squads over the summer.
No looking past Man City for top spot
Guardiola has made four first-team signings after last year’s clean sweep of domestic trophies in England.
Scott Carson is effectively the third keeper at Man City, so how much involvement he and re-signed Spanish left back Angelino will have is questionable.
Holding midfielder Rodrigo Hernandez (Rodri for short) has gone straight into the Etihad XI, however.
A long-replacement for Fernandinho, the Spain international already looks a great buy to relieve those ageing legs.
The arrival of Portugal right back Joao Cancelo from Juventus, meanwhile, could unwittingly help Guardiola with a crisis at centre half.
Long-serving skipper Vincent Kompany left Man City to become player-manager of Anderlecht in his native Belgium and no replacement came in.
Kyle Walker has played at centre back for England before, albeit on the right of a three. Fernandinho could also be pressed into service in the heart of defence now that Aymeric Laporte is injured.
Man City are short of cover with John Stones returning to full fitness before the Champions League Group C opener away to Shakhtar.
Guardiola will hope Nicolas Otamendi returns from international duty with Argentina unscathed and stays fit.
For their Champions League opponents, this is a chink in the Etihad armour. It’s doubtful that Zagreb, Shakhtar or Atalanta really have the quality to find it, however.
Further forward, meanwhile, it’s the usual suspects. Leroy Sane misses the entire group stage through injury but there’s plenty of options for Guardiola in attack.
In Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo and David Silva, and Raheem Sterling, Man City have world class firepower and supply. This really is their pool to lose.
Konoplyanka an exciting addition at Shakhtar
Who joins Guardiola’s men in the knockout phase from Champions League Group C is reasonably open.
Shakhtar continue their enforced exile from Donetsk after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and play their home matches in Kharkiv.
Yevhen Konoplyanka burst onto the scene some seven years ago with a stunning solo goal against England in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, but his club career outside Ukraine never really lifted off.
His return to domestic football with Shakhtar follows a change of coach. Luis Castro steps in after fellow Portuguese boss Paulo Fonesca joined Roma and winger Konoplyanka is very much his marquee signing.
This Shakhtar side is far from reliant upon him for goals and guile, though.
Brazil-born pair Junior Moraes and Marlos became naturalised Ukrainian citizens and could be a handful as a front three alongside Konoplyanka for opposition defences.
Other than that, this is a typical Shakhtar squad that blends Brazilians and domestic footballers with the odd other foreign player in there.
This model has served them well down the years. Fernandinho once plied his trade for the club.
Matched up against a weak Dinamo Zagreb roster which only really has the hostile atmosphere generated by fans in the Maksimir behind it, Shakhtar should be looking at third place minimum in Champions League Group C here.
Atalanta adventure appeals to neutrals
The unknown quantities in this pool are Serie A side Atalanta. Gian Piero Gapserini has rebuilt his reputation with the Bergamo club after a disastrous but mercifully brief spell with Inter Milan earlier in his coaching career.
He’s twice steered Atalanta to top four finishes, but Italian football only had three Champions League spots allocated the first time.
In guiding Atalanta to third last term, Gasperini even bested old club Inter on head-to-head records.
This is uncharted territory for the Coppa Italia finalists who will play their European home games in the San Siro this season. They have also managed to keep hold of key players who helped them overachieve.
Gasperini can now pair Colombia duo Luis Muriel and last season’s top scorer Duvan Zapata in attack. Papu Gomez may be dropped in or play out wide to accommodate his fellow South Americans, but is comfortable in such roles.
Leading Atalanta’s supporting cast, meanwhile, is Slovenia playmaker Josip Ilicic who continues to do well in Serie A.
Spells at Palermo and Fiorentina – clubs that at one time or another held similar pretensions – have served him well.
Gasperini recognised the need to strengthen his defence as well and went back to Sevilla after the Muriel transfer late in the window.
Loan captures of Denmark centre half Simon Kjaer and Brazilian left back Guilherme Arana should shore things up here.
Where Gasperini has really earned his corn though, is by transforming English football flops into success stories.
Deep-lying Netherlands midfielder Marten de Roon didn’t deliver for Middlesbrough, but forms an effective base with Switzerland counterpart Remo Freuler.
In goal, meanwhile, Aston Villa fans can hardly believe ex-keeper Pierluigi Gollini has European football.
This Atalanta adventure has real potential and they’re very much in the mix to progress from Champions League Group C.