Well then, Blues, happy with that draw? For everything that UEFA seems to be trying to get Manchester City into trouble with, the past few season’s Group Stage draws of the Champions League do not seem to be involved.
An extremely familiar foe in FC Shakhtar Donetsk was pulled out of the second pot and into Group C. Following the Ukranian side, another trip to the Eastern Europe in the form of GNK Dinamo Zagreb awaits in Croatia. Lastly, but quite possibly the toughest test in the group comes from Pot 4, the surprise package from Serie A last season, Atalanta B.C.. Pep Guardiola and his men will undoubtedly be content with this draw, but each side in this group provides unique obstacles on the road to the knockout stages. Let’s take a deeper look into City’s upcoming European opponents.
FC Shakhtar Donetsk
Two options left in Pot 2. The first, Spanish heavyweights and one of the most difficult teams to play, Atletico Madrid. The second, Ukrainian side Shakhtar, who City know all too well given the luck of the draw in previous years. Most would believe that there was no way it could happen again. Surely Atletico Madrid and Manchester City would be one of, if not the, marquee matchup of the Group Stages. However, it has happened again, and for the third year running, City will make the long trip to Ukraine.
So, what can we expect from these ties? And the simple answer seems to be: not much different than last year. Shakhtar like to get out and play football, and have various players who are capable of hurting any opponent. Major names to look out for are Marlos, Taison, and the young and very promising Tete. City showed last season that the gulf in quality between the sides is just too much, though. Some of the best football Pep’s men played last season, specifically in the Champions League, was in this away fixture. Look for a repeat of this – six points should be seen as a must here.
GNK Dinamo Zagreb
A side that would have definitely been looked at as preferable coming into this draw, but equally cannot be taken lightly. The Coatian side reached the last 16 of the Europa League last campaign, but the real statement was made domestically. Zagreb blew the rest of the league out of the water last season, finishing on 92 points from 36 matches, with their nearest rivals finishing a whopping 25 points behind.
Nenad Bjelica’s men will be a different outfit compared to the other two opponents in the group. His side will look to defend well and do their damage quickly on the counter. The magic man in the team is Dani Almo. The 21-year-old Spanish midfielder has been electric for Zagreb, already scoring three times en route to qualifying for the Group Stage. Any chance for his side in the competition will be put on whether he remains at the club, with numerous suiters looking at him as the transfer deadline approaches.
This away match will represent a great test for City. A 29,000 capacity Stadion Maksimir will be rocking, and Pep Guardiola will only need to look back to last season’s Europa League to see an inspired 1-0 victory over SL Benfica for proof of the challenge this fixture represents. Having said this, the expectation from these ties should not be any different than those for Shakhtar, and six points should be the target here.
On a personal note, I was extremely excited after seeing this draw. Having watched a lot of Serie A in the past couple of seasons, Atalanta have been one of the most intriguing sides to watch. Under Gian Piero Gasperini, they have turned into a massive threat to the top top sides, and proved to everyone just how strong they are last season. A third place finish in the league and an appearance in the Coppa Italia Final were major achievements for a side that will look to continue their upwards trend this campaign.
Gasperini has installed a dangerous 3-5-2 setup with his team. Papu Gomez, Duvan Zapata, and Josip Ilicic make up Atalanta’s attacking trident that will give City’s defense major issues in these fixtures. Although they finished behind Juventus and Napoli by 21 and 10 points respectively, ‘La Dea’ racked up the highest goal tally in the top flight, netting 77 goals during the season.
They are a very fun team to watch, playing at a high intensity, pressing teams at every chance, and are lightning quick getting forward. Zapata and Ilicic are dynamic strikers, and have the ability to stand up their markers, but are also very capable at hurting sides running with the ball at their feet. In the center of midfield, Middlesborough misfit Marten de Roon has found a home next to Remo Freuler, and together they have put in countless impressive performances for their side. They are very willing runners that will look to get forward as much as they can while also never shying away from their defensive duties.
However, for all of their attacking abilities, City should look to capitalise on the side’s defensive fragilities. Their 46 goals conceded in the league was joint second-highest in the top 8, and a massive 10 more than anyone else in the top 5. Due to work being done on the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, the away fixture will likely be played at the famous San Siro, and will be a good test for Pep Guardiola to gauge his side’s ability to deal with a dangerous attacking side. Six points will be looked at as the goal once again, but this is the most likely matchup that could see a split of the points.
City should look at nothing less than 1st place in Group C as acceptable. While the group does not offer Pep Guardiola that major side he has been wanting to get his squad better at dealing with extreme adversity in a non-knockout setting, some good tests are presented nonetheless. Each away fixture represents a unique set of challenges that will benefit City as they look to finally break through their European barrier.
In the end, the Blues should find themselves making it to the knockout stage, winning every game except for the trip to Italy, where the two sides will battle it out in a thrilling 3-3 draw. Atalanta will make it out of the group behind the Citizens, and pose a tricky test for their opponent in the round of 16. And at the bottom, I believe Zagreb will manage to finish in third and get back into the Europa League.
You can follow us on twitter here: @City_Xtra
You can follow the author here: @realgavinford