Udinese take on Werder Bremen at the Weserstadion on Thursday evening as their quest for European glory reaches its most trying test. It is the last-eight stage of the UEFA Cup and every team left is in it to win it. Beforehand, some teams were fielding weakened sides with a view to other priorities, but at the quarter-final stage, it is a case of everyone knowing their club is in with a genuine chance of lifting such a coveted trophy. Udinese’s shocking league slump has lead to them launching a full blown assault on Europe with Serie A slipping down the pecking in terms of priorities, and with the Zebrette now sat a distant and wasteful 15th, UEFA Cup success is the only way to save an otherwise desperate campaign and remain on the European stage.
Bremen will be of a similar view after suffering a horribly inconsistent season. A side regularly challenging for the Bundesliga title in recent years as well as competing amongst Europe’s elite find themselves 10th in the league at present and European qualification through final league position seems all but impossible. So they too have thrown their weight behind a European adventure and after bowing out of the Champions League earlier this term, Coach Thomas Schaaf and his players have tackled the UEFA Cup head on. A late rally in the first knockout round saw the Germans dispatch Milan thanks to a brace from on-loan Chelsea man Claudio Pizarro, shocking the Italian giants. The Rossoneri’s neighbours Inter also fell at the hands of Schaaf’s hit-and-miss side, succumbing 2-1 in a match the Germans dominated.
While Bremen was impressive in their dispatching of tournament favourites Milan, the Bianconeri have knocked out reigning champions Zenit St. Petersburg. Both underachieving sides are more than capable of producing big performances on their day and the pitch will be littered with internationals as the teams fight it out for the right to face either Hamburg or Manchester City in the semi-final.
There were high hopes for this Udinese side last August and after their fine start many tipped Pasquale Marino’s men to land one of the top four spots and qualify for next season’s Champions League. But a horrific run in the middle part of the campaign all but ended any previous objectives for the season and Marino desperately needs some success in Europe. He looks set to welcome back some important players following the weekend defeat against the Nerazzurri, in which the Zebrette acquitted themselves admirably and were very unlucky in defeat. Alexis Sánchez and Maurizio Domizzi are available after both sat out Inter’s visit because of a ban. However, influential winger Antonio Di Natale is set for a lengthy lay off following his knee injury whilst playing for the Azzurri. The Friulani’s 4-3-3 system will no doubt be in force again on Thursday with Floro Flores almost certain for the striker role while Sánchez, Fabio Quagliarella and Simone Pepe battle it out for the two wide berths. It is a system that has worked wonders in previous seasons and despite coming a little unstuck this term, it is a front three with plenty of pace and quality, and on their day it can cause even the meanest defence an endless amount of problems.
Their opponents play a rather different system and one we see less and less these days. The diamond formation is favoured by Schaaf and with Brazilian playmaker Diego at the tip, the Zebrette will have to be on red alert all game. Recent weeks have seen Diego crow about his ambitions and with Werder’s season in tatters, it seems the Brazilian views his future elsewhere. There will no doubt be plenty of suitors. Bremen also boast an experienced and dangerous striker force. Pizarro has proved his worth at this level for almost a decade now and with Hugo Almeida and Markus Rosenberg the other options the Germans possess heaps of firepower. The experience and knowhow of midfield man Torsten Frings is invaluable and defenders Per Mertesacker, Naldo and Petri Pasanen are all prominent names who boast impressive CV’s and plenty of admirers.
If the Friulani are to come through this round they will have to be at their very best. Bremen is one of the favourites for this trophy now and Marino will know a scalp like this will do his status no harm while under increasing pressure. The mini-revival has raised the spirits to a degree in Udine, despite losing their last two in the league, their form since late January has been passable. They will no doubt take some confidence from their showing against champions-elect Inter at the weekend and a repeat performance on Thursday will surely bring about a more deserving result.
Whatever happens, Udinese will be comfortable with the prospect of bringing the Germans back to the Stadio Friuli in a week’s time. Bremen have been abysmal on their travels this season, with just one league win on the road all campaign and none in Europe – the primary reason for this season’s demise. In saying that, the Germans are prolific on home turf, scoring for fun and boasting a fine points return. Last Saturday’s 4-1 routing of Hannover 96 at the Weserstadion coupled with the previous week’s 1-0 loss at Dortmund perfectly epitomises Bremen’s turbulent campaign and Marino will be safe in the knowledge that a draw or even a narrow defeat (with an away goal) will see his side in a decent position for the second leg against the travel sick Germans. But beware – Bremen will be looking to end this tie in the first leg knowing their away form does not inspire confidence – they are certainly capable of doing so.