AZ Alkmaar vs. Udinese: Jozy Altidore Turns Provider as Dutch Frontrunners Win
It quickly became obvious that Udinese had arrived in Holland looking to play things as safely as possible.
The lowest scoring team to advance out of Europa League group play took the field with Serie A's top scorer, Antonio Di Natale, firmly anchored to the bench.
AZ Alkmaar had no such hesitation and attacked from the opening whistle.
The movement and intent of midfielders Maarten Martens, Simon Poulsen, and forward Brett Holman were especially dangerous.
For their part, Udinese seemed content to drop deep and defend. Even when they managed to win the ball, the Italians showed no interest in putting Alkmaar under pressure on the counter. With no defensive duties to worry about, the Dutch side flowed forward in numbers.
They were able to create chance after chance, but couldn't break through the hard defensive shell presented by Udinese.
Despite their dominance, Alkmaar came close to conceding the opening goal as halftime neared. Pablo Armero's 37th minute free kick attempt took a deflection on its way toward goal, causing Alkmaar keeper Esteban Alvarado to mishandle it. The ball looped precariously into the air before dropping just over Alvarado's crossbar.
The resulting corner gave Udinese one more chance as Danilo found himself with a free header. But Alvarado came up with the save to preserve equality going into the half.
Can Udinese overcome 2-0 deficit in Europa League?
Udinese drastically changed their approach after the break.
No longer content to sit deep and invite pressure onto themselves, the Italians controlled possession and looked the more likely side to break the draw.
The game's third quarter hour finally saw Udinese forward Floro Flores begin to see meaningful involvement. Right up to the 63rd minute, the Serie A side looked dangerous and built successive attacks.
For the first time in the match, Alkmaar couldn't get a touch.
But then, an Alkmaar counter attack found Martens running at the left center of the Udinese defense. Left back Maurizio Domizzi found himself caught between two ideas (closing down or dropping to cover his area).
He chose neither, allowing U.S. international Jozy Altidore to slip in behind. Martens played Altidore in, and the American repaid the favor by returning the cross to Martens. A deflection popped the ball up off the ground just high enough for the Belgian midfielder to head it into goal.
All the momentum Udinese had built to that point in the second half vanished with the opening goal. The Italians still saw a greater share of the ball than in the opening period, but to no great effect.
Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin finally inserted Di Natale with just ten minutes left to play, but the switch proved to have no impact.
However, a less noteworthy substitution just a minute earlier would register in the game. That's when the little used Alkmaar midfielder Erik Falkenburg replaced the goalscorer, Martens. It took him just six minutes to prove the wisdom of the move.
In the 84th, Domizzi pushed forward out of the Udinese defense only to lose the ball near midfield. As the defender argued with the referee, Altidore received the ball steaming into the vacated space. His low cross found an arriving Falkenburg at the far post for the final goal.
Two assists to the good, and the American striker had to be brimming with confidence.
So, in second half added time, when he faked a near post run only to pull off the back shoulder of his defender as a cross dropped beautifully for him, Alkmaar fans expected the club's leading scorer to add a goal to his evening's return.
But Altidore's frustration was plainly evident after he drove his free header into the ground and watched Udinese's keeper gratefully gobble it up.
The final whistle went and Alkmaar had their 2-0 victory.
They're in the driver's seat for next week's return leg in Italy, but a strong home performance from Udinese could leave Altidore pondering his missed opportunity.
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