Udinese Club Focus: Euro Nightmare Is Over
On Thursday, Udinese were in Russia, playing their second leg to FC Anzhi Makhachkala, the “Dikaya Divisiya.” Having drawn 1-1 at home in Friuli, the Little Zebras needed a win to stay in European competition.
Prior to the game, they sat last place in Group A—after Anzhi, Liverpool, and Young Boys—and, a little more than 90 minutes later, it remained their spot. In other words, Udinese had gone from Champions League contenders to Europa League knockouts in just a few short months.
This game was a must-win—not only to stay in Europe, but also to prove themselves to the supporters back home in Italy, many of whom seem to be running out of empathy and patience.
A pair of Anzhi goals in the second half meant a 2–0 scoreline. It was no doubt disheartening for those Zebrette supporters who made the long trip to Russia, but maybe not all that surprising. Prior to the game, at a press conference held at Lokomotiv Stadium, even Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin admitted, “we know we are quite unlikely to qualify.” However, he followed it up with an offering of hope, adding “but we just need two wins to have a chance.”
Of course, that chance would not come and Udinese were knocked out of the tournament, with still one more match to play against Liverpool. Defender Maurizio Domizzi, who accompanied Guidolin to the pre-game press conference, echoed his coach’s sentiments before adding his own self-fulfilling prophecy: “Europa League does not wait on us.”
And he was right. Aside from the unlikely win against Liverpool at Anfield, Udinese spent much of this tournament lacking speed, structure, and—at times—seemingly discipline. However, to some, the early exit could be a blessing in disguise. Without the distraction of a European competition, Udinese can now focus singularly on climbing the table in Serie A, where the team currently sits at mid-range.
To begin, part of the solution seems to be the acquisition of another striker. Antonio Di Natale may be a god amongst men in Udine, and the city is a few goals away from building a shrine to him in the Piazza della Libertà, but the truth is, he cannot do it all himself.
This has been apparent all season. He constantly overcompensates, and his usually perfectly timed runs are now resulting in more offsides than Filippo Inzaghi in his prime. Truthfully, the best seasons for Udinese have been ones where Di Natale has had his speed matched wih another person playing up front, most notably in the form of Fabio Quagliarella or Alexis Sanchez. It was not just their skill—though that helped—that made Di Natale such a deadly striker, but the fact they constantly worked together. The current Udinese squad does not have the same consistency, resulting in disjointed plays and an overall lack of teamwork.
This leads to a second point: the team, as whole, needs to rest. This season has been particularly rough, as the fragmented squad—due to cross-league loans and injuries—could not adapt or get used to both a European and Italian schedule. Udinese could neither afford to rest key players, nor rely on the numbers for substitutes.
This was apparent in the away game in Bern against Young Boys, when Di Natale didn’t start. While the whole game was sloppy and unorganized, it was clear Udinese lacked leadership without their captain; no one was able to step into his place and keep the team controlled. Udinese will soon have to realize the truth: even their god amongst men is really only a mortal. Toto, who turned 35 last month, can no longer play as often as the team would like. The club needs an alternative—both for goals and leadership—without relying on Di Natale for every game.
Which segues into a third point: Udinese needs a new identity, which includes no longer being compared, and comparing themselves, to previous Udinese campaigns. The team currently has close to 30 players out on loan; they need to re-evaluate who they have and who they can use.
Some fans decry the fact so many players have been traded over the last few seasons—not only the flashy ones like Quagliarella and Sanchez, but also the core commanders like Samir Handanovic, Gokhan Inler, and Simone Pepe. It seems safe to argue it is not a lack of talent that plagues the Zebrette—after all, none of those men listed above were the same big names when they started in Udine. Rather, these “star players” were developed and honed their craft while playing at home in the Stadio Friuli.
In this respect, then, the team should continue to do what it has always done. By cultivating the players they already have, especially the unsung heroes of the team, Udinese can continue to grow, rather than continuously focusing on trades of the past. With a little effort on owner Giampaolo Pozzo to keep them in Udine, players such as defenders Dusan Basta, Andrea Coda, and Mehdi Benatia should be invested in to play their prime in Northern Italy. Perhaps, if treated properly, cultivated, and developed (and not loaned out), this crop of mid-to-late-20-year-olds will emerge as Toto-esque leaders.
Finally, Udinese needs to stop being its own worst enemy. After the Anzhi game, Guidolin stated “we are masters of our destiny;” taking responsibility for being knocked out. He did not blame the bad campaign on the obvious injuries and tough competition in the group. Rather, he simply pointed out the team did the best it could and things just did not work out. Once again, like he has done many times this past season, he apologized and mused on what could have been, stating, “Udinese are going out of this competition with pride for what they did in this match and in the previous ones.”
While Guidolin may be using classic PR strategy to defend a poor Europa run, he is right: Udinese remains the master of its own destiny. While they are out of the Europa race, the Little Zebras need to figure out how they will attack their Italian campaign back home. And hopefully it will be in the same surprising and incredible vein of their 3-2 away win in Liverpool.