With Roma, Juve and Inter all falling foul of the English in the Champions League along with UEFA Cup favourites Milan being dumped out of the cup by Werder Bremen and it has been left to Udinese to fly the Italian flag in Europe. The Zebrette made light work of the reigning champions, Zenit, at the Stadio Friuli, comfortably beating the Russian giants 2-0. However, the return tie on a cold St Petersburg evening would not be high on any team’s wish list, let alone a Udinese team who have hardly been firing on all cylinders this season.
Despite the confidence-boosting advantage of a two goal aggregate lead it was the home side that came out of the blocks first. The first chance went the way of the Russians and barring some magnificent last-ditch defending from Gaetano D’Agostino, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk’s point-blank header would surely have given Zenit the dream start they longed for. Still, Pasquale Marino’s men were not merely spectators as the first half started to heat up. In fact the whole tie could have been laid to rest had Quagliarella managed to keep his header the right side of the woodwork after Antonio Di Natale had picked him out in the Petersburg penalty area.
Dick Advocaat, undoubtedly having impressed the significance of the tie on his players pre-game, would have certainly have been the happier of the two coaches as the opening blows were exchanged, and it wasn’t long before Zenit confirmed their first-half superiority with the game’s first goal. A clever pull back from Ivica Krizanac left Zenit Captain, Tymoshchuk to force his header past the despairing efforts of Udinese keeper Samir Handanovic. With just 34 minutes on the clock the Russians had blown the tie wide open.
In all fairness Udinese were fortunate not to find their aggregate advantage completely wiped-out just minutes later when Zenit midfielder, Viktor Fayzulin, missed the target with just the Udinese keeper standing in his way. However, despite dominating for large periods, Advocaat’s charges were unable to improve upon their lead before half time.
The second half had all the necessary assets to have been a breath-taking final half of football, although in all honesty, it was more of a Victory procession for the visitors. Whatever Advocaat said to his team in the half-time interval clearly did not have the intended effect, as the home side seemed to crumble against a resilient Bianconeri. In fact the home side were lucky to secure the win at all – despite conceding the tie, as Udinese spurned chance after chance. That said, Zenit keeper, Vyacheslav Malafeev deserves the majority of credit as he pulled off a string of world-class saves to thwart the perpetual efforts of the Zebrette’s attackers.
The current holders can have no qualms about the result, simply beaten by a better side across the two legs. The result will no doubt have impacted on Udinese’s perceived chances of success in the competition and of the teams still left they would, on paper, have about as much chance as anybody else. Marino will undoubtedly have been pleased with the outcome – if not with the match result, and will be hoping his team can apply some of this quality in their remaining games in Serie A. Although, in all probability, their best chances of being seen in Europe next season probably still lie in this season’s European competition.