While most will confidently predict that Manchester City should dominate Group C, the battle for the second qualifying place begins in Zagreb as a Dinamo Zagreb side who reached the last 16 of the Europa League last season play host to Group Stage debutants Atalanta.
The form lines
Dinamo qualified after entering in the second knockout round. Having beaten Saburtalo and Ferencvaros, they then eased to a comfortable victory over Norwegian Champions Rosenborg. Dinamo sits second in the league so far this term, behind Hajduk Split, but have conceded only three in seven league games this season and have a game in hand. Main striker Bruno Petkovic was impressive on international duty and comes into the group stage in form.
In contrast, in three Serie A games this season, Atalanta have conceded six in their two wins and one defeat so far. They qualified directly to the group stage after finishing third in Serie A last season and top-scoring in the league. However, last season’s Europa League campaign was a disappointment, seeing the side knocked out in the playoff on penalties by FC København.
The sides have met only once previously, in the first round of the 1990/91 UEFA Cup, where Atalanta progressed on away goals after a 1-1 draw in Zagreb, with Dinamo’s goal from Zvonimir Boban.
Since reaching the group stage, Dinamo have added Croatia Under 21 striker Sandro Kulenovic from Legia Warsaw to add to their wide array of young attacking talents. Kulenovic's addition means Dinamo have almost the entire attacking line of the national youth team, with him playing alongside the likes of Antonio Marin, Lovro Majer and Nikola Moro. Much of the first team was rested for Friday’s win over Istra and the club enters the group stage with a clean bill of health throughout the side. Dani Olmo has been rested over the past few weeks solely with the aim of preparing him for the Champions League.
Luis Muriel is a doubt for Atalanta - he trained with the side on Tuesday and may not be ready to start at Maksimir, but he is the only injury concern coming into the game in the squad. Former Hajduk midfielder Mario Pasalic is likely to play a role against his old team’s eternal rivals.
Predicted Line Ups
Livakovic, Leovac, Peric, Dilaver, Stojanovic, Moro, Ademi, Olmo, Hajrovic, Orsic, Petkovic
Gollini, Toloi, Djimsiti, Masiello, Pasalic, Papu Gomez, Ilicic, Hateboer, Gosens, Muriel, Zapata
Nikola Moro vs Mario Pasalic
While there will be plenty of individual battles across the pitch, such as Bruno Petkovic's battle against Andrea Masiello, plenty of Dinamo fans will pay special attention to the former Hajduk Split man Mario Pasalic’s upcoming duel against the man Gazzetta dello Sport proclaimed as the new Luka Modric in Nikola Moro.
It may be a relatively lazy comparison to make, but Moro will have a massive role in dictating the play of Dinamo and in making sure the side execute their high-speed counter-attacking game. His will be the role of linking the play between what should be a relatively deep back four, supported by Arijan Ademi, and the more attack-minded players ahead of him. Pasalic will play a similar role for Atalanta, albeit they operate with a different defensive shape, and will be ably assisted in that by Josip Ilicic. Who is able to play that link role better will have the biggest role in either side coming out on top.
What the teams have said
Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini told Sportske Novosti: “We have six games in the group. Dinamo are very important but not decisive. It’s more important to put in a good performance and assess where we are after this first game. There are no bad teams here.”
Dinamo manager Nenad Bjelica told Gol.hr: “We have 25 healthy players. I expect a good game and, ultimately, a victory… ...If we were able to stop Benfica, and stop a player who was sold for €120m, then we can Atalanta.”