Champions League Group C preview: Manchester City to top, Atalanta to finish runners-up

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The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off this week.

The group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams that will feature in the last 16 draw in December.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave an early mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be absolutely thrilled about the Champions League right from matchday one.

We take a look at all the groups and make a prediction on the final standings. Here is Group C …

Manchester City (England)

SergioAgueroKevindeBruyneBernardoSilvaManCityBasel

Manager: Pep Guardiola

The Premier League champions, having established dominance in England, simply have to carry that onto the European stage. Despite his vast trophy cabinet, Pep Guardiola’s inability to win a Champions League title without Lionel Messi in the team will stand out as a black mark.

A title with this City side could make his case as the finest manager of this generation even more assured.

City’s best run in the Champions League arrived in the 2015/16 season when they made the semi-finals, only for Real Madrid to edge them out in a bland encounter. Last season, Guardiola’s side were involved in last-minute drama in the quarter-final tie against Spurs, with VAR ruling in the latter’s favour and knocking City out of the competition… again.

Consistency in the Premier League demands an improved performance in Europe and there will be no excuses for City not winning the group. They are strong favourites for every game but could expect a strong fight from Italy debutants Atalanta.

The Premier League champions have been criticised for showing complacency in the later stages of the competition after cruising through relatively simple fixtures in the group stage. This is something they will need to work on this season.

Key player: Kevin De Bruyne

Atalanta (Italy)

Duvan Zapata

Manager: Gian Piero Gasperini

Atalanta will be pumped to kick-start their first-ever Champions League campaign as they travel to Zagreb this week. The Italian side featured in the Europa League during the last two seasons but are still infants in Europe.

However, their performances in Serie A last season makes them a real threat in the Champions League and also a relative unknown quantity this season. Atalanta scored more goals (77) than any other side in Italy’s top-flight last season and were made to work very hard for their spot at the top table of European football.

Gasperini’s side had to battle Roma, AC Milan and Torino and finished level on points with Inter Milan to grab third place and the coveted spot in the top-four. Duvan Zapata played a vital role in creating history for Atalanta, scoring 23 goals to propel his side to a favourable finish.

It is likely that Atalanta can make it to the knockouts in their first season in the competition too. They will be involved in an intense tussle with Shakhtar Donetsk for second place behind Man City, but are favourites to pip them to the runners-up spot.

Key player: Duvan Zapata

Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

Shakhtar

Manager: Luis Castro

The Ukrainian side have been a regular in the Champions League having failed to qualify just once this decade. They qualified as winners of the Ukrainian Premier League, comfortably securing the title with an 11-point lead at the top.

Their best performance in Europe in recent times arrived two seasons ago when they qualified for the last 16 and were knocked out by Roma on away goals. Previously, they got the better of the Italians in the same round in the 2010/11 season but were thumped by eventual champions Barcelona in the quarter-final.

It is extremely optimistic to expect the Ukrainian side to top the group but a second-place finish is well within their capabilities. Shakhtar will have to defeat Dinamo Zagreb both home and away at all costs and churn out at least one massive win against Atalanta. It would help their case if they knock points off group favourites City in the home leg too.

Key player: Tete

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)

DaniOlmo

Manager: Nenad Bjelica

Dinamo Zagreb’s long and arduous journey in the qualification rounds has finally led them to the group stage after a break of two seasons. Nenad Bjelica’s men qualified for the second round of qualifiers because they won the Croatian First Football League by a massive margin of 25 points.

Zagreb then had to overcome Saburtalo Tbilisi, Ferencvaros and Rosenborg before they made it to the main draw in Monaco last month. The Croatian giants did so without losing a single game.

In the group stage of the 2016/17 season, Zagreb did not muster a single point in six games under manager Ivaylo Petev but they surprised Arsenal 2-1 at home in the previous season.

The Croatian giants face a tall task to qualify for the last 16 but they should believe they can finish third and qualify for the last 32 of the Europa League.

Watch out for the highly sought-after Dani Olmo who has already attracted interest from top European clubs such as Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

Key player: Dani Olmo

Prediction:

1. Manchester City

2. Atalanta

3. Shakhtar Donetsk

4. Dinamo Zagreb

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Champions League Group D preview: Juventus to win the group, Atletico Madrid to finish second

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The top 32 teams from all of Europe are set to begin their quest to be crowned kings, with the Champions League kicking off this week.

The group stage phase of the competition will produce the 16 teams that will feature in the last 16 draw in December.

Given the competition is stacked with quality teams that are looking to leave an early mark right from the word go, there are legitimate excuses to be absolutely thrilled about the Champions League right from matchday one.

We take a look at all the groups and make a prediction on the final standings. Here is Group D …

Juventus (Italy)

Cristiano Ronaldo

Manager: Maurizio Sarri

Having qualified as Serie A champions, Juventus are the team to beat in what can shape into a very interesting group. The Bianconeri will look to make it past the group stage for the sixth consecutive time after last failing to do so in the 2013/14 season.

The exclusion of players such as Emre Can and Mario Mandzukic from Juve’s Champions League squad testifies to their immense quality in depth. The Italian giants boast one of the most well-rounded squads in Europe, a necessity when teams fight for more than one trophy throughout the season.

In Cristiano Ronaldo, Juve have one of the finest players to have played in this competition. The Portuguese forward won three consecutive Champions League titles with Real Madrid before being knocked out with his new team by Ajax last season.

Ronaldo has made it his onus to end the Old Lady’s long wait for a European title and the ageless wonder, 34, will hold the key against Atletico Madrid in what could be the contest that decides the group on opening night.

The former Real man has a special liking for playing against the team from the other half of Madrid, a team against which he has scored 25 goals and registered eight assists in 33 appearances across all competitions. He also dumped them out of last season’s competition with a hat-trick in Turin to seal an epic fightback for the Bianconeri, after they had lost the first leg of the last 16 2-0 in Madrid.

But the Turin side will be without the services of injured Douglas Costa, Miralem Pjanic and Danilo against the Spanish side. This could play a huge role in determining the result on Wednesday and subsequently the final standings.

Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Atletico Madrid (Spain)

Joao Felix

Manager: Diego Simeone

The Spanish side established themselves as a familiar face in this competition earlier this decade and have never looked back. Although Los Rojiblancos won the Europa League three times in the last 10 years, they are yet to win a first Champions League title – despite twice losing finals to their hated city rivals Real.

Atleti will hope that this could be their year, having invested heavily and wisely in the transfer market during the summer. But Diego Simeone’s men must first finish in the top-two of a challenging group before they think of making it to the summit.

The 2018 Europa League winners boast incredible attacking talents in the exciting Joao Felix and Thomas Lemar, a solid midfield headed by Koke and a sturdy defence reinforced by the addition of former Espanyol defender Mario Hermoso. They have one of the best goalkeepers in the world guarding the posts in Jan Oblak.

If Atletico build on their promising start in La Liga – where they won three of their first four games – and extrapolate it to the European stage, they should have absolutely no problem making it to the last 16. Although, Bayer Leverkusen are more than capable of spoiling the party.

Two seasons ago, the capital side was relegated to the Europa League after they failed to finish in the top two during the group stages. Two draws against Qarabag were majorly responsible for this unexpected failure. They should hence be wary of Lokomotiv Moscow and focus on getting all six points against the Russian side.

Key player: Joao Felix

Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)

Kai Havertz

Manager: Peter Bosz

Bayer Leverkusen have returned to the Champions League after a two-year absence, one of which was spent in the Europa League. Bayer have barely made a sound in Europe’s top tier competition since they made a huge noise by reaching the 2002 final, where they lost 2-1 to Real Madrid.

The German side could spring a surprise against Atletico and Juventus though and complicate the group dynamic. The raw talent prevalent at Leverkusen makes a fair case as to why the big guns must consider them equals.

In Kai Havertz, Leverkusen have one of the finest attacking talents in the world who could take Europe by storm this season. Leon Bailey, Kerem Demirbay and Chile star Charles Aranguiz are some of the other players who could help put the Bundesliga side on the European map again by eliminating one of the two big guns in the group.

Atletico were on the right side of a 4-2 win in the last 16 when Leverkusen last featured in this competition two years ago. Revenge will be on their minds as they look to shock the Spanish – and Italian – giants.

Key-player: Kai Havertz

Lokomotiv Moscow

Mario

Manager: Yuri Semin

Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow will feature in the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since they were knocked out in the last 16 by Monaco in the 2003/04 season, on their way to the final. The Russians’ best result on the European stage arrived between 1997 and 1999 when they made two consecutive semi-finals of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup (equivalent to the Europa League). But Lokomotiv have failed to breach the last 32 of the Europa League since.

Interestingly, their current manager Yuri Semin was at the helm when they made it to the semis on those two occasions at the end of the 90s. He was also their manager when they first qualified for a European competition way back in the 1993/94 season.

Lokomotiv are considered the fodder of this group but they will look to make a statement during their home games. Russia always makes for a challenging away trip and sturdy performances at home could enable them to play spoilsport against the bigger clubs.

Key player: Joao Mario

Prediction:

1. Juventus

2. Atletico Madrid

3. Bayer Leverkusen

4. Lokomotiv Moscow

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Toni Kroos v Marco Verratti among key clashes as Paris Saint-Germain host Real Madrid

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An injury-hit Paris Saint-Germain host an injury-hit Real Madrid in a crucial Group A tie that could provide either team with an early vantage point in the Champions League group stages.

The two teams have faced each other twice in the knockouts in the last four years, with Madrid emerging victorious both times.

Injuries to Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappe, Luka Modric, Isco – and suspensions to Neymar and Sergio Ramos – have rendered this tie unpredictable.

Which key match-up do you need to keep an eye out for in their absence? We take a look.

MAURO ICARDI V RAPHAEL VARANE

VaraneRealMadrid (1)

Injuries to key players will mean that Argentinian gunman Mauro Icardi will be the focal point of PSG’s attack. When in form, the former Inter Milan striker can rip apart some of the best back lines.

But his goalscoring numbers took a massive hit last season, because of his off-field antics. However, a 10 out of 10 performance against one of the best teams in the world would be a perfect way to announce himself to the world again.

Despite being Madrid’s best defender, Raphael Varane was still some way off his best last season. Suspension to Ramos will mean that the Frenchman will be burdened with more responsibility.

This battle will see two world class players attempt to find their touch and gain some confidence ahead of the bigger games.

MARCO VERRATTI V TONI KROOS

marco-verratti

Two similar players in Marco Verratti and Toni Kroos will vie for midfield dominance with Marquinos and Casemiro providing assistance from the central defensive midfield positions.

The Italian has been one of PSG’s most consistent and reliable players in the last four years. He will play a crucial role in maintaining the tempo of the game and a good game from him could spell trouble for Madrid’s defence, by releasing Pablo Sarabia with an incisive pass.

Kroos endured a steady decline for a lot of last season. But he recovered well in the second half of the campaign and is now on a quest to re-establish himself as one of the best in the world. On his day the German remains a class act and his vast experience will be needed in Paris.

KEYLOR NAVAS V THIBAUT COURTOIS

A healthy competition, insists Thibaut Courtois

The duels from Madrid’s training sessions last season will be blown up to a continental stage when Thibaut Courtois and Keylor Navas go head to head on Wednesday.

Navas was the superior keeper at the Spanish capital last season but was never the favourite, and always seemed destined for the Bernabeu exit door. He will be determined to remind Madrid what they are missing when he takes guard between the posts.

Courtois will be under pressure knowing he has to live up to Zinedine Zidane’s faith in him and outperform the Costa Rican custodian at the other end. He had a poor debut season but a solid show against Levante on the weekend should boost his confidence ahead of the big tie.

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