It’s an unlikely and considerably unthinkable scenario but following the exits in the earlier rounds of Milan, Fiorentina and Sampdoria and a hat-trick of midweek defeats at the hands of English opposition in the Champions league, Pasquale Marino’s Udinese now find themselves as the sole representatives of Italian football in continental competition.
Just 24 hours after Roma’s dramatic shoot-out defeat at the Stadio Olimpico to Arsenal ended their European Cup interest along with Inter and Juventus for another year, at least the Friulani – who had negotiated Lech Poznan in the previous round – were looking at a 0-0 home draw and tough second leg prospect in Russia against holders Zenit St Petersburg until a late brace put the hosts in firm control of a place in the quarter finals.
Zenit, under Dick Advocaat and despite the loss of the talismanic Andrei Arshavin in the January transfer window were not to be underestimated, with captain Antonio Di Natale wise enough to be wary of the opposition: “I don’t know any of their players personally, but I know they are a strong team who were in the Champions League and they won this competition last year. It will certainly be a tough battle but we must take a positive result with us to St Petersburg. We will attack and try to score at least once.”
For 85 minutes of a frantic and often feisty game that saw no fewer than nine yellow cards issued, Roman Shirokov dismissed and Udinese Coach Marino sent to the stands, Di Natale’s request was left unfulfilled before the deadlock was broken.
The visitors were given a clear indication of the home side’s intent as Simone Pepe, Fabio Quagliarella and Antonio Di Natale formed a three man attack and combined neatly in a series of moves that saw goalkeeper Makeev block and then smother a Di Natale volley before Quagliarella went just wide on three occasions. Another chance was presented before the break when Di Natale skipped past Tymoshcuk but his cross was a little too high for Gyan Asamoah.
It was all Udinese as the half came to a close but Advocaat managed to shake up his men during the break, and they very nearly led through Tymoshcuk’s fierce right-footed drive which flew beyond goalkeeper Samir Handanovic before striking the post.
Neither side was backing down and both goalkeepers were called upon to make quick successive saves as Di Natale, Inler and Zyrianov all came close. With the Russians looking dangerous a mistake from Maurizio Domizzi almost allowed Denisov to feed Tekke who would have surely scored had Zapata not got back to make a superb challenge.
There was still time for Marino to be banished following his protests in response to a challenge on Pepe, Andrea Coda to come off injured and Di Natale to be denied again before Quagliarella finally broke the deadlock following some great work by Pepe, and Di Natale put the result beyond doubt, converting a last minute penalty awarded for a foul on Zapata.
With Udinese ‘s indifferent league form seeing them slide into 12th place – and ten points off a UEFA Cup spot – winning the trophy may well be the only route back into to European football next year. And for Italian football, the Zebrette remain the only hope of a European success story.
Where did the UEFA Cup go wrong?