Udinese may have had the spine of their team torn out but Italy’s ‘Little Barcelona’ still have plenty of heart and guile to cause Arsenal a scare.
Udinese have never been a club capable of tilting at the Serie A title or one to look long term unless it is to turn a profit on a rough gem, hence the side from the Friuli region will be richer in their bank account and poorer on the pitch when they meet Arsenal, having sold the immensely talented Alexis Sanchez, midfield general Gokhan Inler and defensive lynchpin Cristian Zapata.
How they qualified
Fourth place was up for grabs until the last day of the season with Udinese two points ahead of Lazio but needing just a point from their home match against already crowned champions AC Milan; having recorded a better head-to-head record with the Romans. That point duly arrived - in a rare goalless draw for a side that finished second top goalscorers on 65 goals - and overall, qualification to the preliminary round was thoroughly deserved on the back of stirring victories over Inter, Napoli and Juventus as well as a memorable 4-4 draw at Milan.
Last season’s success was built on providing the diminutive, fast and skilful front-two pairing of Sanchez and veteran Antonio Di Natale. The former may have moved on to the real Barcelona but the Chilean’s replacement Paulo Vitor Barreto – back from a loan spell at Bari – is another elusive forward who like Di Natale thrives on tight turns before playing quick-one-twos in and around the area. However, the highly-experienced coach Francesco Guidolin also relies on a midfield five that ensures constant service. The tactic is simple enough: win the ball back and then get it forward as quickly as possible to catch the opposition off-guard. The tall and imposing playmaker Inler has been replaced by a photo-fit in the middle in the shape of Thierry Doubai who will be flanked by the equally robust Giampiero Pinzi and Kwadwo Asamoah but there are two other vertically-challenged performers in Mauricio Isla and Pablo Armero who race up and down the flanks, providing a constant outlet – it is an non-stop intensity and fitness allied to skill that is almost like watching Barcelona at times – well the closest an Italian club can get to the Catalans. Maintaining possession ensures that the back-three, with the Brazilian Danilo Larangeira replacing Zapata, is not overly exposed while in goal Samir Handanovic was the league’s penalty heartbreaker last year, saving five spot-kicks.
Di Natale remains to lead the attack on the back of being crowned Serie A top goalscorer for a second consecutive season – the first player to do so since Giuseppe Signori for Lazio in 1993 and 1994
With the spine of the side no longer there both Danilo and Doubai will need to click into gear immediately but the Zebrette’s biggest problem is that they are notoriously slow starters, suffering four straight defeats at the start of last season while they have looked sluggish so far in their pre-season run-outs which is no great surprise as the Serie A season does not start until the end of August. If Di Natale is off his game then neither Baretto nor Antonio Floro Flores - also returning from a loan spell - provide that true cutting edge inside the area. Guidolin will have to ensure that the ethic of the team before self was not lost over the summer months.
The highly-demanding Guidolin, who at 55 likes nothing better than hitting the mountains on his bicycle on his rare day’s off, will ensure that his midfield scrap for possession but once on the ball the onus will be to get momentum moving down the wings, with Armero and Isla dropping back to provide an outlet along either flank - and to attack from deep to ensure a free-flowing approach. Rarely is the ball sent skywards into the area at set-pieces even though two of the back-three do venture forward while the tendency at corners is to play a short ball and then to work an opening.
Sanchez may have dribbled off to Barca, but the old maestro Di Natale remains to lead the attack on the back of being crowned Serie A top goalscorer for a second consecutive season – the first player to do so since Giuseppe Signori for Lazio in 1993 and 1994. The veteran ended up on 28 goals but was denied improving on that total when Milan goalkeeper Marco Amelia saved his spot-kick on the last day, but that little blip could not dampen another crowning year for the 33-year-old whose goals come from sublime touches on either foot as well as from rapier-like free-kicks: The little Neapolitan will have to be shadowed at every turn.
Udine and the Stadio Friuli
The good citizens of this unfashionable north-eastern city and those of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in general are not a demonstrative bunch – Fabio Capello and Dino Zoff both hail from the area – but those down-to-earth supporters who make the trip out to the low-slung bowl of a stadium; resplendent with running track situated next the motorway do provide passionate support and colour to the otherwise drab surroundings although there is little doubt that in muggy August with the mountains and beach beckoning there will be plenty of gaps in the 41,000 capacity while a passing thunder storm would leave three-quarters of the spectators drenched as only the main stand is covered. However, tasty sausage sarnies, beer and grappa on sale in the kiosks around the ground will lighten the mood of any wary traveller while the city itself offers what travel guides would probably describe as ‘sedate charm’.
Click here for more Greatest Goals I Ever Saw
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook