Udinese Club Focus: Has the Zebrette’s bubble burst following their Europa League exit?
Udinese have endured a disappointing start to the season after crashing out of the Europa League to Slovan Liberec 4-2 on aggregate.
The Friuli club also lost their first league game against Lazio 2-1 and were completely outclassed in the first half. This poor start to the season has left many already questioning whether Francesco Guidolin’s good run as coach of the Zebrette is coming to an end.
Will another failure in Europe start a downward spiral returning Udinese to mid-table mediocrity or can they rally and once again keep pace with Italy’s big boys?
The 2013/14 season will be Guidolin’s fourth as coach of the Zebrette. The 57-year-old has earned himself a contract until 2017 due to his excellent results in Serie A where he has led the club to fourth, third and fiftth place finishes, respectively; no small feat for a club much smaller than several of their Serie A counterparts. This season, however, has began with a huge blow for Guidolin and Udinese, and it could have ramifications for the future.
Losing in the qualifying round of the Europa League to Czech outfit Slovan Liberec has to be considered a big blow, but it isn’t the first time Udinese have buckled under the pressure at this stage of European competition. In the previous two seasons Udinese had the chance to play in the Champions League Group Stage, but lost in the final qualifying round against Arsenal in 2011/12 and then Braga in 2012/13. The latter was a real disappointment as having secured a 1-1 draw in Portugal they were expected to go through only to draw 1-1 again and lose 5-4 on penalties.
European competition has certainly been an Achilles’ heel for Guidolin and his side. After entering the Europa League following their Champions League exit to Braga the Zebrette finished bottom of their group and in 2011/12 they were knocked out by AZ Alkmaar in the Round of Last 16 3-2 on aggregate. It was another disappointing result considering they played against 10 men for 87 minutes in the second leg at the Fruili.
Something to consider for Udinese fans and those criticizing the clubs inept displays in Europe, is whether an early exit could actually be a blessing in disguise for Guidolin.
Traditionally Italian sides have done well in the Europa League, although primarily in its old UEFA Cup format, as both Juventus and Inter have won the competition a record three times. Parma have also won it twice and Napoli once.
Seven of those nine triumphs came in the 90s, however, a time when Italian football was flourishing and was probably the strongest league in the world. Udinese do not have the quality of players those squads possessed and in reality success in the competition this season was unlikely. So, my point is that I believe Udinese might actually benefit from no European football for the rest of this season and here’s why…
Traditionally clubs focusing on multiple competitions often prioritise one over another and often league form may suffer or an early exit from domestic cup competition follows. Especially when the club concerned isn’t one of the ‘bigger’ teams like Juventus or Napoli, who have more strength in depth.
Udinese fall into this bracket, although their squad is large it lacks quality in some areas and certainly lacks strength in depth. Spreading their current crop of players over three competitions would likely see them struggle to keep up in the league and cup. No European football would mean they play fewer games and could place more focus on the two remaining competitions.
Last season saw a marked improvement in performances after the winter break when they were no longer involved in the Europa League. They won five games in the league before the break and a staggering 13 games in the second half of the season, including eight wins on the trot to finish the term.
Guidolin’s side, led by Antonio Di Natale’s 26 goals amassed a whopping 42 points in the second half of the season. That kind of form before the break would have seen them finish second, sending them straight into the Champions League Group Stage avoiding the tricky qualifying round.
No European football means a stronger focus can be placed on the Coppa Italia as well, won by Lazio last year. This competition is winnable for Udinese as Juventus and Napoli look set to place priorities primarily on Serie A and the Champions League and Milan’s squad doesn’t look strong enough on paper to mount an assault on three competitions.
Inter and Roma may well see the Coppa Italia as their main chance of silverware this season, but Udinese are capable of beating both if they play to their potential. The Zebrette’s last cup win was the Intertoto Cup in 2000 and a piece of silverware would be a deserved reward for Guidolin who would have something concrete to show for his sterling effort since arriving at the club.
This poses the debate which is often raised in England as to whether it is more important to win a trophy or to qualify for European competition. For bigger clubs the money received to play in the Champions League means the latter is often prioritised, but for a club like Udinese, who are generally considered a ‘selling’ club, something historical like a cup win and a trophy to go in the club museum could be more important to the fans.
The fact is that Guidolin has done an amazing job at Udinese and success has to be measured relative to the club’s size and standing in the game. Surely Udinese can be forgiven for their slip-up in Europe this season providing Guidolin’s team recover and maintain the discipline and work ethic that led them to success in the previous three years.
Should the Zebrette’s name be etched on the Coppa Italia at the end of the season or the team again out-performs the like’s of Roma, Inter and Lazio in Serie A, this blip will be quickly forgotten. With young talent like Luis Muriel and Roberto Pereyra supporting Antonio Di Natale in attack and with Guidolin at the helm, they still have the talent and the nous to over achieve once again.
Follow Michael Clarkson on Twitter: @M_Clarkson