If you are unaware of the situation in the Italian Serie A this season, you have missed quite a lot. Internazionale are languishing in 7th place, some 10 points (they were 11th before Tuesday’s win at Genoa) behind the league leaders having lost six out of their 14 played this term. The Bianconeri are ruling the roost above the Scudetto-holders AC Milan, 2010 Champions League winners Inter, AS Roma and other famous names. Yes the mighty Juventus are top of the table, but they are not alone at the summit.
Udinese Calcio are locked level on 30 points with the Old Lady and are only confined to second place due to an inferior goal difference of three. Antonio Conte’s Juve side are surprising a lot of people in Italy with their undefeated run in the league so far, considering their 7th place finish last season, and are looking like title favourites already. But their black and white chums from the far north east of the country are truly shocking the experts in Serie A.
In the summer this year, Udinese went through somewhat of a fire sale by selling some of their best talents. The most high-profile of these was Alexis Sanchez, who clinched a €26million dream move to FC Barcelona in July, and was one of Udinese’s key players. Swiss midfielder Gokhan Inler made the move to fellow Serie A club Napoli for €13m and Cristian Zapata left for €14m, the centre-back going to Villarreal. They didn’t stop their thirst for selling there with forward Simone Pepe joining Juventus for €7.5m, Gaetano D’Agostino moving to Siena for €2.5m in a co-ownership deal and numerous players leaving on loan. Their total amount made from the transfers was a staggering €64m.
Their spending pales in comparison. They reportedly shelled out around €10m on Romania’s ‘equilavant to Lionel Messi’, a forward called Gabriel Torje. Brazilians Paulo Vitor Barreto (€3.5m) and Neuton (€3m) were the other significant outlays by the Zebrette. With their total spend coming to a total of €14m, the Italians made a healthy profit of €50m. Not bad.
Francesco Guidolin, the manager of Udinese, has dealt with the comings and goings superbly. But it is not just the rapid movement of playing staff that the club has had to deal with in recent times. Pasquale Marino was head coach from 2007 until December of the 2009-2010 campaign, and was replaced by Gianni De Biasi. However De Biasi’s reign lasted just two months and Marino was brought back at the Stadio Friuli. Marino only stayed until the end of the season however with udinese finishing a disappointing 15th in the league table. He left to become manager of Parma, replacing Francesco Guidolin who went in the opposite direction to Udinese. This manager merry-go-round did not affect the squad last season however, as they finished a very respectable fourth behind Napoli, Inter and champions AC Milan.
Guidolin was reported as saying his target for Udinese this season was to avoid relegation. With the mass departures of important figures at Friuli, it would be hard to disagree with that low expectation. Yet they are joint top of the league, and don’t look like a team that is depleted of top stars. Home wins against Fiorentina and Roma have caught the eye but none more so than last weekend’s single goal victory in the San Siro against Inter. Claudio Ranieri’s side may be struggling but they are still a top-quality outfit, recently winning their Champions League group. They also just climbed up to 7th from 11th by winning their game in hand against Genoa 1-0 on Tuesday night, level on points with Palermo who are 6th.
A consequence of their good finish last season was gaining entry to the Champions League this season. They met Arsenal in the qualifying round play-offs but lost out 3-1 on aggregate despite a spirited home display. They then parachuted into the Europa League and were drawn in a group with Atletico Madrid, Rennes and Sion. The latter were expelled from the tournament by UEFA for fielding ineligible players and replaced by the team they defeated in the qualifiers, Celtic. With one game remaining in the group, they have to avoid defeat at home to Celtic on Thursday to gain a place in the next round, or win and hope Atletico slip up against Rennes to claim top spot in the group.
With Celtic having won once away from home in Europe in their last 32 games in both competitions, Udinese supporters don’t have a lot to be worried about it would seem. But they will still want their black and white heroes to win the game, and the man who gets them so many goals is Antonio Di Natale. The prolific striker has been overlooked for Europa League fixtures however, playing in just one so far where he scored in a 2-1 win over Rennes in the first tie of the group.
Along with Atalanta’s German Denis, who is coincidentally on loan from Udinese, Di Natale is top of the scoring charts in Italy’s top division with 10 goals to his name so far. If the 34-year-old keeps up his lethal scoring form and is the top goalscorer at the end of the season, it will be his third year in a row that he has picked up the Capocannoniere. The Italy striker scored 28 goals last season and 29 the season before that to claim the titles which have only ever been won by an Udinese player twice, Oliver Bierhoff in 1997-1998 and Marcio Amoroso the year after.
The award is a very prestigious one, with great footballing names like Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, Diego Maradona and Allesandro Del Piero to name a famous few who have claimed the Capocannoniere. His 28 goals last term was the third best strike rate in Europe at 0.78 goals per game, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
A goal machine, as Di Natale is, does not fully explain Udinese’s fantastic form however and a tight defence with a great goalkeeper has attributed to their cause. The Udinese defence have the best record in the league having conceded seven times in 14 games, with the next best coming at 11 conceded by leaders Juventus and fourth-placed Lazio. The 50-times capped Slovenian international keeper Samir Handanovič, who signed a new 5-year-deal in August as a reward to his services, has been in great form thus far and can rely on the usual back three of Danilo, Mehdi Benatia and Maurizio Domizzi to be solid in front of him.
Although similar to Levante’s rise to the top of the Spanish La Liga, unlike their Spanish counterparts Udinese are expected to stay high in the league and finish in an impressive position. Udinese have never won the Italian league in their history but now people are beginning to whisper. But don’t go talking about winning the Scudetto, as manager Guidolin may just stare you out to death.
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