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)
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
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)
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)
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
1. Manchester City
3. Shakhtar Donetsk
4. Dinamo Zagreb
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