Having come so close to leading Udinese to the group stages of the Champions League on more than one occasion, Francesco Guidolin will forever hold a place in the hearts of most Zebrette supporters.
When Swansea City appointed Francesco Guidolin as their manager in January 2016 and many, including club captain Ashley Williams had to Google the new man’s name, those familiar with the Italian’s past would have been confident that he could steer them to survival in the second half of the 2015-16 Premier League season.
Although the usual names were shocked and appalled by the appointment of a foreign coach with no Premier League experience, especially given the overlooking of the completely inexperienced Ryan Giggs for a role at a Welsh club, it was no surprise that he comfortably kept Swansea up.
Guidolin, see, was not just an old Italian man who liked cycling, rather one of the game’s thinkers with a vast coaching experience and someone who had previously guided Udinese to the preliminary rounds of the Champions League.
The Zebrette, a modest club from Italy’s northeastern region of Friuli, are a side who have rarely troubled Italian football’s traditionally bigger clubs atop the Serie A table. In the early 1990s, they were regularly up and down, swapping Serie A for Serie B. Towards the end of the decade, they established themselves in the top flight and even managed a third place finish in 1997-98, a height that has since only been repeated once.
In 2004-05 they achieved their first and only qualification to the Champions League proper by claiming a fourth place finish in Serie A, eventually being drawn in a group with Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Panathinaikos. This opposition proved too difficult to negotiate, however, and they fell out of Europe’s elite competition as the group’s third best side.
Unfortunately for the people of Friuli, Udinese slipped into their old habits and fell back down the table. In 2009-10, the club avoided relegation by nine points, which prompted the return of Francesco Guidolin for a second stint in charge, having previously coached them between 1998-99.
His return looked troubled from the off, and his side struggled early on, waiting until the fifth round of fixtures to get their first point on the board with a 0-0 draw at Sampdoria, following successive defeats against Genoa, Inter, Juventus and Bologna. Round six handed them their first win and the side would not lose again until the 11th set of fixtures, as they embarked on a record breaking season, during which they would achieve an unprecedented points total of 66.
With the season reaching its final game week, Udinese were set to welcome the already-crowned champions AC Milan to Friuli as they sought Champions League football. In the week leading up to the game, Guidolin had promised he would dance like Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng should they get their desired result. Rumours spread that the Rossoneri would simply roll over and make things easy for their hosts, but a crunching tackle early on from Mathieu Flamini on Gokhan Inler quickly dispelled that train of thought.
The usually high-scoring Zebrette piled on the pressure and, were it not for the heroics of Marco Amelia in the Milan goal, would have won the game easily. Antonio Di Natale, Alexis Sanchez and co. grew increasingly irritated by Amelia’s exploits, and the tension was palpable with fans fearing late heartbreak.
The heartache would not come, and Guidolin could dance freely on the Friuli pitch safe in the thought that he had achieved the improbable by guiding Udinese to the Champions League.
Having caught the eye of Europe’s elite, a few important members of that Udinese side would move on before ever playing in Europe. Sanchez joined Barcelona, Cristian Zapata moved to Villarreal and Gokhan Inler left for Napoli, with others wanting to finish what they started and staying put for another 12 months.
By the time the qualification round arrived, Udinese weren’t quite the same as three months prior. Arsenal were the opposition, and the Italians fell to a 1-0 first-leg defeat at the Emirates Stadium. Back in Italy, things started well as Antonio Di Natale headed them ahead in the second-leg. Robin van Persie then equalised before the hosts were awarded a penalty. Di Natale stepped up and, uncharacteristically, the diminutive striker saw his effort saved by Wojciech Szczesny. Theo Walcott went on to seal the win, which saw Guidolin fall at the final hurdle for the third time – narrowly missing out on the group stages of the Champions League much like he had with Bologna and Udinese previously.
He wouldn’t have to wait long for another chance, as against all odds, he went one better in Serie A the following season. Despite having a weaker side at his disposal, the Zebrette managed to finish third in 2011-12, equalling the club’s best performance from ’97-’98.
Guidolin’s story of close misses would continue, with the Bianconeri yet again falling out of the Champions League, this time at the end of a penalty shoot-out with Sporting Braga.
A fifth place finish followed in 2012-13, followed by 13th in 2013-14, prompting the decision for Guidolin to step down as coach and take a supervisory role under the Pozzo’s, working closely with Udinese, Granada, and Watford.
During his time with Udinese, Guidolin had some exciting players to work with. While playing under him, few players failed to improve as Guidolin absolutely got the very best out of those at his disposal, delivering some memorable moments to the people of Friuli that will not be forgotten easily.
This article originally featured on The Final Third’s Where The Owl Sleeps, as they celebrate the beauty of Italian football during January as part of their Month of Calcio. Throughout the month, they will have plenty of articles and bonus podcasts, too, so keep an eye on their website as their celebration of calcio continues.