Udinese have one last chance to salvage some Italian pride from what has been an otherwise forgettable season in Europe when they host Werder Bremen in the UEFA Cup quarter-final on Thursday, trailing 3-1 after the first leg in northern Germany last week.
With no representation in the Champions League last eight, the demise of Serie A has been much trumpeted, not least in England where the Premier League’s ‘big four’ continue to monopolise the latter stages of Europe’s premier club competition. The Zebrette momentarily provided a shot in the arm for Serie A by eliminating UEFA Cup holders Zenit St Petersburg in the Round of 16, but with a two-goal deficit to overturn at the Stadio Friuli, Italian participation in Europe is hanging by a thread.
Pasquale Marino’s team were undone by two goals from Bremen’s Brazilian playmaker Diego and a strike from Hugo Almeida at the Weserstadion last week. Fabio Quagliarella’s 87th minute effort did, however, offer the Friulani a glimmer of hope, leaving them requiring a 2-0 win to progress to a semi-final with Manchester City – also trailing 3-1 – or Bremen’s Bundesliga rivals Hamburg. Udinese have won 2-0 or better at the Friuli on four occasions in the league this term as well as defeating Tottenham, NEC Nijmegen and Zenit by the same score-line on their UEFA Cup journey. While that proves Marino and co. can turn the tie in their favour, Bremen’s European performances this season demonstrate the size of the task facing the home side.
Thomas Schaaf’s side have proved difficult opposition to break down, losing just once in 11 matches (at home to Panathinaikos on Champions League Matchday 4), and have twice emerged unscathed from the San Siro, drawing 1-1 with Inter and coming from two goals down to hold Milan in the Round of 32 second leg. Such form belies their troubles in the Bundesliga, where Bremen is marooned in tenth place with just nine wins from 27 matches. While the German outfit were cementing their mid-table status by drawing 1-1 draw at Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday, Udinese were labouring past nine-man Reggina, striking twice in the final six minutes through Antonio Floro Flores.
With one eye on the second leg, Marino left several key personnel on the substitutes’ bench at the Stadio Oreste Granillo, including Quagliarella, Gokhan Inler and Gaetano D’Agostino. While their return will undoubtedly strengthen the Zebrette’s hand on Thursday, the weight of history is against the hosts – Bremen never having lost a European tie after taking a two-goal advantage into the second leg. Udine and, perhaps Calcio fans everywhere, will be hoping there is a first time for everything.