‘No offence intended’ could be the slogan for the Udinese and Lazio teams we have been seeing as of late. Both teams started off the season firing on all cylinders, but have seen their progress losing steam on account of one common factor – the performances of their forwards have seen a sharp decline. The rest of their players work more or less fine, save for the inevitable defensive bumps that any mid-table team is bound to suffer, but the attacking department is not fulfilling their potential, and no offence intended.
Lazio, who are going to visit Udinese in the Stadio Friuli this weekend, were all set to be the revelation of the season. Opening with three convincing wins in a row, they planted themselves firmly in the first place and it wasn’t long before the excitable Biancoceleste piazza was daydreaming about the Scudetto. One month later, they were brought back to the ground after a violent 4-1 debacle against Milan and the defeat in the derby. The latter in particular – considering how derbies are typically seasonal objectives to the team from the capital – seems to have been devastating to the psychological equilibriums of the Biancocelesti. They have picked up some points since then, but these seem but the after-dew of the pale blue storm they were this September.
Udinese, for their own part, confirmed the good work done by Coach Pasquale Marino last year with a solid start to the season. While they were not so naïve as to entertain Scudetto fantasies after the first three games, they nonetheless presented a serious challenge for a spot in the top four – an achievement which would be a major success for the team from Udine, because it would mean access to the Champions League (the first step towards becoming a truly great team). The inevitable process of levelling out which took place in Serie A saw them losing sight of the top three (the usual trio of Inter, Milan and Juventus), and the battle for the fourth place is now looking very tight. Their competitors include Fiorentina, Napoli (in impressive form this year), the resurgent Roma and, of course, Lazio. Udinese are well aware that this weekend’s game is going to be a direct clash for that glittering fourth place, and they’ll be waiting in the Stadio Friuli with knives inbetween their teeth.
The big question for them is their attack. Udinese play with three men up front, a combination which used to be composed of spearheads Antonio Di Natale, Fabio Quagliarella and Simone Pepe – fearsome names all (Pepe is especially impressive this year, young, fast and concrete on his wing, and justifying Lippi’s regular inclusions of the man in the Azzurri team), but they seem to have been losing potency as of late. Certainly, they tore apart the other team from the capital, Roma, with an uncompromising 3-1, but that was when the Giallorossi were knee-deep in crisis-hell, and since then the Udinese trio have fared less well against the big teams.
Critics have been quick to point to Di Natale’s age as a limitation that is beginning to show, but that may be ungenerous. More likely, there are two main issues – firstly, the difficulty in finding a chemistry which is not only effective but regular and reliable between three players rather similar in role (a problem inherited from last year). Secondly, and more flatly, what on earth happened to Fabio Quagliarella? Two years ago he was the Italian Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in the Sampdoria team and touted as the next player to join Inter and Roma. Now, he is so vague and inconstant on the pitch that he is being benched in favour of Antonio Floro Flores.
Lazio’s problems pretty much mirror those of Udinese. When the year started out, things were looking rosy. New acquisition Mauro Zarate was scoring goals the likes of which you only find in videogames and playing with a grace and skill which was dropping jaws over the entire peninsula. For a short while, he gained a reputation as the best newcomer of the year in Serie A, over such names as Ronaldinho and Ricardo Quaresma. As if that weren’t enough, Lazio still had charismatic striker Tommaso Rocchi getting ready to return from injury. Rosy indeed.
Then football kicked in with its unromantic reality. Zarate stopped scoring at such a regular pace (albeit still gracing us with excellent performances) and Rocchi turned out to have difficulties working in partnership with the Argentinean phenomenon. Coach Delio Rossi has been experimenting combinations, but so far no system seems capable of exploiting both players at the top of their potential. This is a shame, because Rocchi and Zarate both playing at their best would make for an explosive duo, one with potentially nothing to envy to those of the biggest teams in Serie A.
Lazio have some good names in defence to oppose the Friuliani – in particular Argentinean goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo. ‘Young’ and ‘goalkeeper’ are two words which are seldom found (or trusted) together in Serie A, but Carrizo – after a pretty shaky début last year – seems to have finally come into his own and is proving remarkably solid. Hugely promising right-back Lorenzo De Silvestri also deserves to be kept an eye on, if he is fielded.
For Udinese, on the other hand, a player of great interest will likely be central midfielder Gaetano D’Agostino. The Udinese attack has been drawing so much attention that the passing skills, vision and endurance of this less-glamorous player have too easily and too often been overlooked. Lippi’s recent call of the man in the Azzurri twenty-three – if only a passing episode – was a long overdue recognition of the former Roma man’s contributions to le Zebrette. His counterpart on the Lazio field will be Goran Pandev, a no less classy – and much more offensive player – who will be charged with supporting his doubtful attacking duo.
The psychological factor will play a great part in this game. The stakes are high – not only are the two teams competing for the coveted fourth place, they are also trying to regain the early-season momentum which seems to be slipping away. While both are in a pretty comfortable position on the boards, these are decisive moments not to completely lose the pace of the leading teams and go towards the Christmas break with a solid stack of points in store. Some philosophers have claimed that losing hope is the only way to be free. Let’s see if the dashed hopes of Lazio will be enough to liberate their game when facing Udinese on their own grounds.