The San Siro, January 9th, 2011. Udinese and Milan put on the game of the season with 31 shots and six second half goals. A match of brilliant drama, exhibiting the Zebrette’s devastating counter-attacks, Milan’s stubborn fortitude and the sort of chaotic defending that would have Gianni Brera typing in his grave. Two goals from Antonio Di Natale and one from Alexis Sanchez had the Bianconeri 3-1 up with 13 minutes to play, before a superb own goal from Mehdi Benatia gave the Rossoneri hope. With the irrepressible spirit of champions Pato got his second four minutes later, but unsatisfied with a point Udinese went ahead again. German Denis finished another lightning quick counter only for Zlatan Ibrahimovich to level in the 93rd minute, with one Arabic commentator bringing the glorious show to an end, exalting, “Ibracadabra Ibracadabra!”
Despite not taking all the points, Udinese were the only side to score 3 and then 4 against the eventual Scudetto winners, and laid down a marker as the first half of the season came to an end.
This Sunday Francesco Guidolin’s side meet Catania at the midway point of the season, having accrued more points already than any year since Serie A became a 20-team league in 2004.The 4-1 win over Cesena took Udinese to 35 points, one better than the best haul of 2004/5 with two games to spare. Last weekend the chance to extend that record was missed with a 3-2 defeat against Genoa and former boss Pasquale Marino, but even with victory against Catania the statistics suggest Udinese’s hopes of a first Italian championship remain prosciutto thin.
2010/11 was a record breaking year for the Friulani. After the 4-4 with Milan Udinese had 27 points, then took its biggest haul from a second half of the season thanks to a 13 game unbeaten run including 10 wins and finished fourth with 66 points, another highest ever total. Yet, for those two personal bests, they still ended the campaign 16 behind Milan and 10 behind Inter.
This season they have the chance to get to the turn 11 points better off than last year, but even so it’s clear why many, including Guidolin, are cool on the Zebrette’s chances. Since Serie A became a 20-team league the champions have averaged 84.5 points to take the Scudetto. This number is stretched by Inter’s whopping 97 points in 2007 but balanced by the 76 the Nerazzurri needed in 2006. 82 points got Milan and Inter a title the last two seasons, so by conservative estimates, even if Udinese win on Sunday and move to 38 points, they’ll need to exceed last year’s record of 39 by fetching 44 points from the remaining 19 matches.
Can they do it? With the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations detaining Mehdi Benatia, Kwadwoah Asamoah and Emanuel Agyemang Badu for at least 3 if not 5 games Guidolin’s task is made more difficult. Benatia has made 15 starts on the right of the three-man defense while Asamoah began every game of the season before joining up with Ghana.
In an interview this week with Virgilio, Brazilian defender Danilo described the 22 year-old as, “the best player at Udinese, he is strong, very strong and I think the best central midfielder in Europe because he makes things simple and is everywhere and always makes the right decision, a complete and modern talent.”
Perhaps it’s a talent Guidolin can’t do without as Udinese may need to equal Roma’s 2010 record of 48 points in the second half of the season to realize neutrals’ dreams of upsetting the conventional order at the top of the league. However, one talent he certainly can’t miss is Antonio Di Natale, currently top scorer with 13, the 34 year-old is bidding to become the first player since current UEFA President Michel Platini (1982-85) to win three consecutive capocannoniere crowns.
In 2009/10 Di Natale scored 17 of Udinese’s 34 goals in the final 19 games, and 15 of 38 last term. Despite the record-breaking start, without Toto’s goals even Champions League football is unlikely next year.