Season review: Udinese – A season that surpassed expectations

Udinese had endured a horrid 2009/10 campaign finishing in a disappointing 15th place. The new season promised little and expectations were not high, despite the arrival of Coach Francesco Guidolin. Udinese brought in Pablo Armero from Palmeiras, German Denis from Napoli and Mehdi Benatia from Claremont. However, the fans had to see influential players go the other way. Simone Pepe went on loan to Juventus, whilst Gaetano D’Agostino moved to Fiorentina and Aleksandar Luković left for Zenit.
Any talk of a European place was left to the supreme optimists and the expectation around the Stadio Friuli was Udinese would be in mid table at best come May. An undefeated pre-season did see the squad produce some good displays, although Eintracht Frankfurt were the only opponents of any stature.
When the season started the initial results could not have been worse as the Zebrette stumbled out of the blocks with four straight defeats. A draw at Sampdoria in late September was their first point on the board and relegation seemed to be beckoning even at this early stage. Guidolin’s side then steadied the ship with a 1-0 win over newly promoted Cesena, and although this did not bring about an immediate turn in fortunes it did at least see the team start to pick up points.
Stumbling through October, November and December Udinese found it hard to maintain form but still recorded seven wins, one draw suffering only four defeats. In this period Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sánchez were building the basis of what would end up being a devastating partnership and the team itself was starting to show flashes of brilliance. The last game before the New Year saw Udinese fall foul of a late goal in a 3-2 defeat to Lazio. This was one of the games of the season in which Guidolin’s side showed how well they could play.
Learning from this and now highly motivated his side entered 2011 with a bang – 14 games without defeat in which 10 of these were victories. Udinese were not only beating teams, they were thrashing them. Inter lost 3-1, Juventus to were brushed aside 2-1, and Di Natale and Sánchez were scoring for fun in this period. None more so in an away trip to Palermo, an astonishing game that Udinese won 7-0, with Sánchez scoring four times and Di Natale grabbing a hat-trick.
Free flowing attacking football was now becoming synonymous with the Bianconeri and Champions League football was now being openly talked about. Yet all this good work could have been undone when this run came to an end in April, as the team from Udine only recorded one win in the next five. Lazio were looking more likely to get the coveted fourth place and with Roma and Juventus gaining points it looked like the dream may be slipping away. But once again Guidolin managed to rally his troops and a crucial victory against Lazio and a 2-0 win against Chievo ensured his team’s final day of the season draw against Milan was enough to secure Champions League football next year.
Coach – Francesco Guidolin: Leaving Parma at the end of last season, Guidolin returned for his second spell at the club. His brief pre-season was to improve on Udinese’s poor 15th place finish in the 2009/10 campaign. He not only surpassed this but did it with his team playing superb football and in turn qualifying for the Champions League.
Player of the season – Antonio Di Natale: He has pace, skill, awareness and sublime finishing ability. It is some achievement that at 33 years of age the veteran forward has notched up 28 goals and finished Serie A’s top goal scorer for a second consecutive season. A close call between Di Natale and Sánchez, “Totò” has been key in Udinese’s success this year.
Turning point – Sánchez being deployed as trequartista: Initially a right-winger, Guidolin moved him into middle as early as Week 6 of the season due to poor results. It changed their season, even though it was not until just before the Winter break that he settled on the 3-5-1-1, with Sánchez behind Di Natale.
Average starting XI:

Handanovič
Benatia – Zapata – Domizzi
Isla – Pinzi – Inler – Asamoah – Armero
Sánchez
Di Natale
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