Eight games into the season and a glance at the top four in Serie A may produce more than a few quizzical faces. While it is unsurprising to see Inter sitting at the summit and Milan loitering with intent, no-one would have predicted Udinese or Napoli filling the remaining two Champions League spots towards the latter part of October, nor Catania occupying a UEFA Cup spot.
The most satisfying aspect of these three sides’ success so far is the players used to propel the trio to such unfamiliar heights. While an Italian player hasn’t been seen in an Inter starting line-up, or appeared as a substitute for three weeks (Marco Materazzi in the Milan derby was the last), Udinese, Napoli and Catania regularly feature Italian players in their starting eleven.
Catania has, so far, never failed to start with less than five Italian players on the pitch. Italians Gennaro Sardo, Cristian Silvestri and Christian Terlizzi have been stalwarts in defence for the Elefanti this season with Catania currently have the best defensive record in Italy’s top division, not to mention the fact they are the only side not to have conceded a home goal this campaign. Throw in captain Davide Baiocco and Michele Paolucci – who has three goals to his name – and you are left with a solid core of Italian players in their side.
Udinese have been even more prolific in their selection of home-grown talent. In only two matches this season have they failed to start with less than seven Italian players (the matches in question still featured six Italians in the starting line-up). Their all Italian front line of Simone Pepe, Fabio Quagliarella and Antonio Di Natale is highly regarded in the peninsula with Azzurri Coach Marcello Lippi calling up all three to recent Italy squads. The trident’s combative play is part of the reason the Stadio Friuli outfit are currenly alongside Lazio as top-scorers in the league. What may have gone unnoticed are the games against Bologna and Lecce, where the Zebrette also started with an all Italian back line, as well as the remaining six matches where at least three Italian defenders have started. This has led to the second best defence in Serie A alongside Milan, Juventus and 13th-placed Siena, behind only the aforementioned Catania and champions Inter.
Led by their Italian spine, these impressive performances have also been translated on to the European stage. A 2-0 victory in the first round of the UEFA Cup away to Borussia Dortmund, a side currently unbeaten at home in the Bundesliga, is perhaps the most impressive of these. A further 2-0 victory on Thursday night over Tottenham Hotspur has only added to their growing reputation across the continent.
Napoli currently occupy a Champions League spot too. They have started with no less than six Italians in every game this year and that figure does not include Fabiano Santacroce, the Brazilian born defender who is eligible to play through his father. The Campania club have had possibly the toughest opening set of matches of any club in the league so far. Before the weekend’s 1-0 victory away at Lazio, Napoli had already visited Roma and Udinese and hosted Fiorentina and Juventus. The former two matches ended in draws, the latter both in 2-1 victories. As can be seen, their form against the top sides has been excellent to date, a warning to the two Milan clubs who have yet to face Edoardo Reja’s men.
The Italian focus to Napoli is on their defence and midfield. Gennaro Iezzo, Paolo Cannavaro and Matteo Contini have provided a solid triumvirate at the back. Christian Maggio and Luigi Vitale supply the pace and penetration down the flanks, whilst Manuele Blasi provides industry and nous in the middle. Continuity has also been important with Reja so far able to select a consistent starting line-up for the majority of games, at most only changing three or four players for a game. The Italian base has ensured new South American recruits German Denis and Inacio Pia have settled in well, guiding them in the ways of the Italian game.
The example set by these clubs is to be admired. In an era where the demand for instant success has led to Coaches and Presidents being tempted to buy foreign, Catania, Udinese and Napoli have shown that this is not always necessary. While the season is not yet a quarter of the way through, there is no doubt that the trio will not be relinquishing their grip on the European spots without a fight. With an army of home-grown talent to lead them, they have every chance of holding onto their places come May.