They are the side well admired from onlookers across the globe for their excellent usage of the scouting network with limited resources. Having played in the Champions League qualifying stage against Arsenal and disappointingly were knocked out, many were impressed with a squad of ‘unknowns’, who had lost Cristian Zapata, Gokhan Inler and Alexis Sanchez, and managed to give a good account of themselves, and Serie A in general, for their exciting brand of football. Though despite their early setback in the competition, Udinese impressed and performed exceptionally before the resumption of the season. The Zebrette were in third spot and two points off leader AC Milan, with the best defence in the league at the time too. Currently, Udinese lie in fourth and are 14 points off top spot.
Aspirations for the title would have been fairytale stuff, a bit like Hellas Verona’s magnificent achievement in the mid 1980s. Under Francesco Guidolin, Udinese are currently punching well above their weight and a side, as mentioned, without the star names as their contemporaries boast of, fifth would be regarded as an excellent achievement. Indeed, Udinese aren’t in financial trouble unlike a lot of clubs in Italy so a season without Champions League football wouldn’t serve as a massive financial blow to them though it could entice clubs to sniff around their current blossoming talents like Pablo Armero and Mauricio Isla who are linked to Liverpool and Inter respectively.
Their form since the Christmas break has been alarming however. In the 15 games played, Udinese have won only five. It truly is relegation form as the only teams with worse records are Fiorentina, Genoa, Novara and Cesena – four of the bottom five. Usually what would be associated to a dip in form like this would be a lack of goals, especially if a team is incredibly reliant on one individual – Antonio Di Natale – however Udinese have scored 20 goals since the New Year, seventh highest in the league, which considering Udinese’s league position is on par.
In comparison with the first part of the season, Udinese scored the same amount of goals with two more games (16 compared to 14) and were ninth in the ‘scored for’ rankings, illustrating that it was their resolute defence which helped propel them to third. Having conceded nine in the first half of the season, Udinese have conceded 19 in the past 14 games.
The problems can be traced back to the African Cup of Nations as Mehdi Benatia, Kwadwo Asamoah and Badu had to leave and are hugely influential to the side’s success and stability, especially in which the way Udinese like to play. With the squad being incredibly thin, to lose key players served as a huge blow as Udinese looked to build on what they managed to attain prior to Christmas. Badu returned injured and although having played 10 games in the league up to that point, the young Ghanaian has the personality and the potential, especially, to build a working and formidable relationship with Asamoah in the midfield. That shield has sadly been lacking in front of Udinese’s defence which has been exposed severely.
Likewise, with Benatia out injured too, the defence lacks the usual leadership the Moroccan is able to deliver. Danilo, one of his usual partners in a three man defence, is dependable however the replacements aren’t. Neither Damiano Ferronetti or Andrea Coda have impressed compared to how Danilo, Benatia and Maurizio Domizzi operate. Additionally, injury to Isla since mid-February has served as a blow considering how key the Chilean is to Udinese’s counter attacking aspect of their strategy.
Guidolin has worked wonders with this Udinese side but their current form gives the Coach some food for thought. A small squad will inevitably result in players sustaining injuries, which has been the case unfortunately to their most talented and key players to their team. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, Udinese’s form has slipped and so has their status in the top section of the table.
After defeat to Siena at the weekend, Guidolin still remains optimistic of his side’s chances of gaining European qualification however their dwindling form could give Roma, or startlingly, Inter an opportunity to leapfrog them in the table. With games still to come against Roma away, Inter at home, Lazio at home and tricky trips to Chievo and Catania, Guidolin’s already stretched squad could come under even further examining.